Being a young footballer is as much about seizing opportunities as talent. It’s almost impossible to fathom the number of prodigious English forwards as talented as Harry Kane who simply didn’t get the chance to usurp two high-earning strikers with proven scoring records like Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado.
Multiply that across every position and every club in England’s top four divisions and that’s a gigantic number of young talents who simply never got the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.
That’s an indictment on the modern game in England, the causes and underlying factors of which remain a discussion for another occasion. The consequence is simple though; young players hoping for a professional senior career must take the opportunities that come to them, even if they’re not in their favoured positions and even if it requires modifying their games.
When gaps open in top teams, regardless of which area of the field they’re situated, it’s up to the young players to prove they can adapt enough to fill them.
With Oumar Niasse suspended for Everton’s next two games, pending appeal, and the failure to bring in a star striker during the summer an undoubted cause behind Ronald Koeman’s departure, that’s an important reality check for Ademola Lookman to bear in mind.
The 20-year-old is more support act than front-man, more inward-cutting winger than central focal point – rather tellingly, just one of his 13 senior goals have come when deployed as a centre-forward – but his pallet of raw attributes contains enough to provide a short-term solution to what has been Everton’s problem position throughout 2017/18. From there, his career well could springboard to the levels expected of League One’s most expensive export of all time.
The first and arguably most pivotal attribute is Lookman’s speed. He’s always been a frightening quick forward both with and without the ball, but that is of particular significance for an Everton side lacking pace in most departments.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the No.10 role, where Wayne Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Davy Klaassen have all struggled to provide the necessary dynamism this season. Lookman’s natural speed would compensate for that, creating the space those players need to show their quality by stretching the opposition. Should they manage to consistently thread them through, it would provide them with a go-to pass into the channels as well – the kind of areas where Lookman’s dribbling and delivery comes into play.
Secondly, Lookman can be a clinical finisher when given the opportunities. 45 league appearances for a Charlton side that plummeted out of the Championship during that time provided ten goals – a total that would likely have been far higher in a more talented team with greater confidence – and it was his scoring record for the south east London outfit’s youth system that saw him surge through the U18 and U21 age groups into the first team – just a year after being signed from non-league outfit Waterloo.
That leads into Lookman’s third key attribute; his character and willingness to improve and learn. Signs of that at Goodison Park have been limited thus far, largely due to the lack of opportunities that have come his way, but this is a Premier League footballer who wasn’t even plying his trade with a professional club three years ago. Lookman has transformed exponentially during that time and risen to the challenges put in front of him; becoming Everton’s new goalscorer is just the latest of obstacles that once seemed insurmountable for the 20-year-old.
It remains an unusual route of progress for a young Premier League attacker. The common practice, as we’ve seen from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to name a few, is to prove they can impact the scoreline from out wide before being trusted as the central forward. But once again, it’s a question of what gaps in the first team are available, and a willingness to adapt to fill them.
Lookman’s already shown he can be an incredibly fast learner; it’s now down to whether he can hone his skills quickly enough to put himself in the reckoning to start up front in Everton’s next few games. For starters, he’ll have to rise above Dominic Calvert-Lewin – another young forward who is arguably a better candidate for the central striking role through his 6 foot 1 frame.
But Calvert-Lewin’s been given chances already this season and has struggled to look the part. He’s proved influential in moments, but the Toffees’ all-round play has remained dysfunctional. There are more causes than simply Calvert-Lewin, but he’s only sparingly provided the nous and goal-threat to consistently lead the line. Lookman, likewise, would change the dynamics with a greater emphasis on speed and attacking the space behind defences.
A few months ago, such a significant role for Lookman seemed incredibly unlikely, following a solid if unspectacular first half-season on Merseyside and a summer in which Everton set a string of club records in the transfer market. But David Unsworth knows the youngster – who Transfermarkt value at just £4.5million – well from the development team, has placed a huge emphasis on youth during his caretaker spell and issued Lookman a start out wide against Crystal Palace last weekend.
If anyone is going to give Lookman a chance up front, it’s surely Everton’s temporary incumbent.