The 23-year-old once seemed set to take Europe by storm, but has struggled for minutes at Monaco, and is now set for a third loan to Turkey
Unsurprisingly, given the nation’s pedigree in Fifa youth competition, Nigeria has had more than its fair share of promising young talents seemingly with the world at their feet.
From those who never quite hit the heights – Etim Esin, Macauley Chrisantus, Femi Opabunmi – to those who did – Nwankwo Kanu, John Obi Mikel – an attempt at a comprehensive listing would fill up a moderately-sized fantasy tome.
However, even by those standards, watching Henry Onyekuru break out at KAS Eupen between 2015 and 2017 was a deeply enlivening experience. As he weighed in when it mattered to lift the club from the second tier into the Belgian top flight, it quickly became apparent this was a kid who seemed capable of doing it all, and who actually wanted to—he relished the responsibility of carrying a team.
His ability to turn his dial up as the level and stakes demanded bore this out: in the Jupiler League, he accounted for 30 percent of Eupen’s goal total in 2016/17, and when the Europa League play-offs came around at the end of that season, he positively exploded, scoring 10 goals (exactly half the club’s total) in 10 matches.
It was unsurprising, then, that he began to attract interest from around Europe.
It was not just his eye for goal that was so enticing, of course.
Starting from a nominal wide position, Onyekuru possessed a sharp burst of acceleration, was an outstanding finisher and excelled at skipping past challenges on either side, most often zipping toward goal immediately but also capable to rinsing the full-back on the outside.
Utilized as an attacking outlet, he had the tools to be truly devastating.
Despite an encouraging start to life with the Belgian giants, for whom he scored 10 times in his first 28 matches in all competitions, it was here that things began to sour for Onyekuru. Midway through the season, he suffered a serious knee ligament injury – ironically in a game against former employers Eupen – which required surgery and kept him out for eight months, effectively ending his loan.
While he would go on to make a full recovery, it can be argued that he has yet to fully rebound from that juddering halt to his momentum. There have been two loans to Turkish giants Galatasaray since (one of which saw him contribute to a league title), as well as a transfer to French Ligue 1 side Monaco. However, a lot of that early promise seems to have dissipated, and as the goals have dried up, his flaws have come more sharply into focus.
It appeared last summer that he was set to finally put down roots in the Principality. Former Bayern Munich boss Robert Kovac took the reins at Stade Louis II, and immediately nailed his mast to the Onyekuru boat.
Back in August, he referred to the 23-year-old as “one of the best wingers in Ligue 1”, and started him in the opening two matches of the season against Reims and Metz.
However, it quickly became clear there was not an obvious way to fit him into a coherent tactical set-up.
As it turns out, the relative freedom from defensive and positional responsibility he was afforded early in his development at Eupen had stunted him somewhat, birthing an attacker who was not only unwilling to help the rest of the team maintain compactness, but simply did not know how to involve himself during non-transitional attacks. As such, he often existed on the periphery – sometimes literally – and would simply stand in space on the left flank, spectating as the team laboured to break down opponents in those early matches.
Since the trip to Metz on August 30, Onyekuru has only made two further appearances for Les Monegasques in all competitions this season. Both have come from the substitutes bench, and while he managed a match-winning assist against Nantes, reports indicate he is very much out of favour at Monaco.
A return to Galatasaray, where he spent the latter half of the 2019/20 season, beckons.
It is an offer the player is apparently partial toward: back in October 2019, it was revealed Onyekuru was wont to fly 11 hours, from Monaco to Istanbul, for haircuts with a Nigerian barber based in Turkey. An egregious extravagance, no doubt, but also an indication Onyekuru feels eminently at home on the Bosporus.
However, it would be difficult not to see such a decision, were both parties to follow through, as the meekest of surrenders by Onyekuru. In terms of competitive level, the Turkish Super Lig is hardly a hot destination; indeed, it is something of a retirement league, where senior players go for one last cheque. The pay is good when you can get it, and the standard is hardly sufficient to get the blood pumping. Easy street.
A third spell there at the age of 23 tells its own story, and that not a very flattering one: it would cast the Nigeria international as an individual who would rather have it cushy than fight. It would also make it impossible to argue against the notion that he has failed at the top level, a perception that would all but rule out any kind of return to Europe’s top leagues, even if he did utterly dominate the Super Lig…and even that is not guaranteed, considering his last spell saw him manage only one goal in 10 appearances for Gala.
It is a decision that, though easy, should not be taken lightly. The alternatives – stay and learn, or find a club within mainland Europe with a more suitable playing style – clearly require greater effort, and offer less immediate gratification, but they offer far greater upside.
Your move, Henry.