What happened to Ademola Lookman at RB Leipzig?
Background image: Florian K, CC BY-SA 3.0
Following a lack of first-team opportunities at Everton, last summer, Ademola Lookman decided to return to the club he went on loan to during the 2017/18 season; RB Leipzig, although this time, it was a permanent switch. However, since rejoining the Bundesliga side, the now 22-year-old has learned that the grass is not always greener on the other side, even if that grass proved fruitful in the past.
After helping England's under-20s to win their World Cup in 2017, Lookman was amongst the country’s brightest young prospects. He had joined Everton that January and scored in a 4-0 win over Manchester City on his debut. The key strength of the five-foot-nine starlet’s game was his dribbling, with his direct approach and low centre of gravity - making him tricky for defenders to deal with. Despite Everton’s poor performances in their 2017/18 Europa League campaign, Lookman managed an average of five successful dribbles per game. So far this season, the now 22-year-old has managed an average of just 0.8 dribbles per game, taking the ball past just one player all term.
In fairness, he has found game time difficult to come by. Lookman has played just 201 minutes of football this season, struggling for opportunities under Leipzig gaffer Julian Nagelsmann. The success of his last spell at the club was in part due to the guidance of former manager Ralf Rangnick, who has since moved on to the role of Head of Sport and development at Red Bull. Ironically, it is Lookman’s development that has stalled since Rangnick moved into the role.
The forward has started just once in the Bundesliga so far this season and is yet to score in all competitions. Nagelsmann has often employed Lookman in a central role, and while the player has experience of the position from his time at Charlton Athletic, he is arguably of better use out wide where he can take on and beat defenders with the ball at his feet. In the opportunities which he has had, Lookman certainly hasn't performed badly. He started the Champions League match at home to Zenit in October and played a supporting role in both of Leipzig’s goals in a 2-1 win. That said, he was hooked on 69 minutes and hasn't featured since.
In his 201 minutes on the pitch, Lookman did average a touch every two minutes or less. However, he lost possession 41 times during those minutes and averaged a pass success rate of 77.8%; a stat bettered by 17 of his Leipzig teammates. Lookman has been accused of losing the ball too easily during his time on the pitch in Germany and the stats do support that accusation.
The lack of game time for Lookman is at least in part due to the formations which Nagelsmann prefers to use. Lookman’s style of play suits the modern role of an inside forward, whereas the Leipzig manager often employs either wing-backs or wide midfielders. A lack of stature and defensive work rate limit Lookman’s ability to play in either of those roles, which is perhaps why he has been overlooked by the manager in those positions.
A move to Newcastle United has been rumoured, with Steve Bruce looking to bolster his forward options. However, the Magpies’ manager has also preferred a formation using wing-backs, so a switch to Tyneside could see Lookman running into the same brick walls. The forward may have to adapt his game if he is to fit into Bruce’s plans, or Nagelsmann’s if he is to stay put.
Lookman’s story could have been different all along. During Sam Allardyce’s tenure as Everton manager, the Liverpool Echo revealed that a deal was in place for the youngster to be loaned out to Derby County, which the gaffer preferred, but the player wanted the move to Leipzig, so that was the move which the club pushed through. Now with a return to English football on the cards, the next chapter is crucial in the development of Ademola Lookman after one proverbial step forward in a return to Germany, and two of those steps back...