Aston Villa are making strides to build a formidable youth academy that boasts some of England’s most promising youngsters as well as some of Europe’s rising stars.
Louie Barry was brought back to the Midlands from La Masia, while Jaden Philogene-Biadace, along with six other promising youngsters have all penned pro-deals at Villa Park.
Perhaps the most exciting of them all is Carney Chukwuemeka, who announced via his Instagram account that he had signed a new deal following the club’s top-flight survival.
Dubbed as the ‘best 16-year-old in England’, Chukwuemeka will be looking to break into Mark Delaney’s u23 side full of some exciting teenagers eager to stake their claim for first team football in the not too distant future.
Playing against players up to seven years his senior, Chukwuemeka made a handful of u23 appearances last season after impressing in Villa’s u18 side.
“I am happy to have finally committed my future to Aston Villa, can’t wait for the new season,” he announced, via Instagram.
A youth-team player can only sign on scholarship terms with a view to agreeing a professional deal on his 17th birthday, and Purslow was already arranging Chukwuemeka’s deal before Bodymoor Heath closed on government advice due to the Coronavirus pandemic back in March.
The attraction to add serious potential to youth academies has increased in recent years, and after first-team performance from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Bukayo Saka, Mason Greenwood and Callum Hudson-Odoi for their respective clubs – there’s no shortage of young, English talent.
In recent years, Manchester City paid £4m to sign Morgan Rogers from West Bromwich Albion and Liam Delap from Derby County, whilst Liverpool signed Harvey Elliott from Fulham. All three promising teens rejected scholarships at their first clubs, but Villa will be relieved to have secured the services of Chukwuemeka for years to come.
“We have one right now, probably the best 16-year-old in England, Carney. Absolutely no debate, he’s starting for the U23s,” claimed CEO Christian Purslow at Villa’s AGM meeting in January.
“That’s what you want with your 16-year-olds. Not people who are not quite breaking into the first team, but staying around on contracts because it isn’t quite happening.”
Primarily playing as a central midfielder, capable of operating box-to-box, Chukwuemeka is also able to perform in the ‘number 10’ role. He joined Villa in 2016 from Northampton Town and has since progressed through Villa’s ranks as a teenager.
In 14 u18 Premier League appearances last season, Chukwuemeka scored two goals and provided six assists as he continued to impress key figures at the club.
Manchester City and Liverpool have both been linked to Chukwuemeka in recent months, but academy chief Mark Harrison wants to develop the very best youngsters that are already at Villa into potential first-team players. He believes this is crucial to the long-term sustainability of the club, hence why keeping hold of Chukwuemeka was vital.
Former Villa fan favourite, Alan Hutton told Football Insider that the midfielder has real promise.
“They’ve done well to keep him,” Hutton said.
“There’s been a lot of interest so I think as a young player, looking at your future, you can see what Villa are trying to do, they’re trying to do something and make it positive for young players to eventually break into the first team.”
The four points we will look at in this analysis all influence Chukwuemeka’s overall game, and so we will look at each one in a specific order. Firstly, we will analyse his athleticism and power.
The makings of a powerful midfielder
Chukwuemeka stands tall in the middle of the park, though his ability on the ball exceeds his imposing figure, he’s both agile and nimble, but most of all his strength and athleticism sets him aside from most midfielders of his age. Below, this is demonstrated.
The 16-year-old attracts opposing defenders and midfielders which not only proves he’s a threat to an opposition’s goal, but also how he’s capable of advancing Villa into the final third with his powerful running. In the two instances here, against Norwich City and Reading, Chukwuemeka takes on a number of players, backing his bullish, direct dribbling style to take players out of the game.
Moving beyond such a number of players and dominating midfield battles weren’t isolated themes during his time in Villa’s u18 and u23 teams last season. If Chukwuemeka is capable of advancing between three midfielders, moving past a direct man-marker would therefore be a natural part of the youngsters game, almost in a similar fashion to that of John McGinn.
Academy teenagers who physically mature and develop quicker than others will on the whole perform better in the Premier League 2, and so while his dominating presence is promising, it’s also important to remember that senior football is a different physical discipline altogether.
Aston Villa’s u23 team have been drawn against Carlisle United, Fleetwood Town and Sunderland in the EFL Trophy and Chukwuemeka’s athleticism will be tested against senior players for the first time, with potentially ten years plus more experience than Villa’s academy hopeful.
At 16, Chukwuemeka was playing players with players up to 24 years of age, and in the next example, we can see how he was more than adept in adapting to different opponents.
To explain how Chukwuemeka uses his athleticism to the advantage of his team, retaining the ball in the middle of the park under severe pressure from opponents was a huge plus for Villa’s u18’s last term.
Using his frame and posture to shield the ball while anticipating the next pass is an impressive part of his complex game. Against Swansea, Chukwuemeka was able to firstly win a midfield duel before shielding a loose ball upon pressure from a striker and then pass between midfielders to get Villa out of pressure.
More impressively, in the next example, we see how Chukwuemeka can impose his strength in the midfield, demonstrating his physical presence against one midfielder opponent. His level of muscular endurance to hold off midfielders is a major plus, but to shrug them off while dribbling through the heart of the pitch is equally important to Villa’s rate of final third entries.
Leaving an opponent on the floor after driving from deep, Chukwuemeka has an option to thread a through ball to his forward teammate, dribble further or use his left back as a wider option.
The next attacking phase is crucial to Villa scoring a goal, but Chukwuemeka’s role has, in this particular example, been completed. This is a familiar theme of his game, and his quality will certainly complement Mark Delaney’s U23 side next season.
Chukwuemeka excels in his components of athleticism, and here we can identify how his explosive power is to the benefit of Villa’s midfield.
With an ability to drive into space – ironically space that he’s made through clever movement and an awareness of the next pass – Chukwuemeka can take players out the game, drive Villa up the field and increase the probability of assisting goals. He’s managed six assists in the 14 appearances he made in the u18 Premier League last season.
In this first instance, we see Chukwuemeka running into the afforded gaps past the half-way line, and so we can infer that he likes to firstly operate in a deep position to receive the ball, then motor past weaker, less mobile players who’ve been trapped by his cunning plan to flip opposition midfields.
Against Manchester City, Chukwuemeka again picked the ball in a deep area, then after assessing his options drove into space. Notice the lack of Villa players around him considering he’s on the half-way line, both right-winger and striker are running ahead of play and into space. It was known among the u18 side that Chukwuemeka would carry the ball through the midfield, and partnering midfielders would sit, allowing him to perform more box-to-box actions.
Applying a physical force in the midfield can offer either defensive solidity or explosive power behind the final third, but Chukwuemeka can offer both. His physical prowess will need to be tested and developed further next season.
Technical skills key to his game
For all his physical qualities, any midfielder be it a Premier League number eight or an England international, requires technical skills in abundance.
Here, we can see that Chukwuemeka even has a trick or two up his sleeve.
Chukwuemeka often finds himself in his own third, crowded by a high pressing midfield and striker partnership too, but more often than not he’ll find his way out of a hole. You’d actually be doing him a disservice to think he was in danger, the effortlessness of a step over or roulette, as pictured in this example, is outstanding.
He can drive through an opposition midfield, or simply glide through the lines, by any which method he choses, his levels of performance in the heart of Villa’s midfield proves why he was attracting all the top clubs in England, and abroad.
He trusts his own ability, and there’s no shortage of it. Confidence can be hard to express when three players are surrounding you at various points in the game but Chukwuemeka is clever with his movement.
This example explores this idea.
Receiving a throw in two thirds of the way into Reading’s half, Chukwuemeka finds a pocket of space towards a wider angle of Reading’s goal. Understanding that one good touch will take him out of oncoming pressure, he doesn’t receive the throw-in too safe and instead calls for it from range, knowing he can take the ball into the final third – in a dangerous locality for defenders.
Chukwuemeka cushions the throw with his instep and immediately gets goal-side of his opponent who can’t dispossess Villa’s midfielder without making a foul which would seem unlikely considering his powerful running motion.
Switching a throw-in that presents little harm against an opposition’s goal to a final third entry that could likely lead to an opportunity to score is another quality Chukwuemeka brought to Villa last season. His first touch and technical skills on the ball is evidence that he can make the step up having graduated through Villa’s academy year on year, developing into an exciting mould for a midfielder.
Chukwuemeka has demonstrated he can be deployed in most systems a coach may install and his place in the side wouldn’t be up for debate, he’s a calm head on young shoulders, and in the next example, we can see how he takes chances with a high degree of difficulty.
Rarely will Chukwuemeka find himself as the most advanced player on the pitch, but having dribbled through the final third it’s no surprise to see him within range to shoot at goal. Boasting an impressive amount of assists this season, Chukwuemeka has also added two goals.
Without being dispossessed as he advances right of the 18-yard box, Chukwuemeka manages to turn onto his left foot before slotting a shot past the goalkeeper from distance. This demonstrates how he can put the skills he uses in front of his own box, into practice at the other end.
It’s very encouraging to see Chukwuemeka’s level of confidence. With defenders bearing down on him, it rarely unsettles his balance. Having the confidence to shoot with his weaker left side also shows a level of maturity rather than thrashing at a shot prior to opening back up at a more favourable angle.
Linking with forward players and supporting attacking moves is a part of Chukwuemeka’s game that is probably obvious considering his assist tally and skilful cameos, but offering to run beyond strikers having played as the deeper of a midfield pivot proves his versatility.
In this instance, as we see Chukwuemeka roll the ball into the bottom corner, Villa’s left winger is free to receive a pass, and from his position, the probability of scoring a goal would seem higher, but it’s refreshing to see a midfielder of Chukwuemeka’s youth back himself to increase goal output having worked to support the attack – his reward for mastering the box-to-box role.
Chukwuemeka is often ending attacking sequences in the view of the camera lens, such is the nature of his game – an all action midfielder involved in everything positive Villa do at both ends of the field. He is integral to Villa’s youth sides and his teammates know that.
Here, in this frame we can see how Chukwuemeka receives the ball of his centre-back in a very deep position.
Villa’s defenders are well organised, and both full-backs are available to receive the ball from a pass that would relieve pressure from City’s press, that in youth and academy set-ups is learned from Pep Guardiola’s philosophy. It’s the best pressing game in youth football and Chukwuemeka backs himself to beat it.
Searching for the ball in the depths of his own half, Chukwuemeka takes the ball to feet before shifting is calmly out of danger where a striker forces him to move into the space he left in search for the initial pass. Here, we can see that Chukwuemeka likes to impact the game from front to back, his teammates trust his exceptional ability and performing his ‘easy-on the eye’ game against City demonstrates why.
Chukwuemeka accelerates Villa’s transition from defence to attacking zones. In the next image, this idea is explained further.
After looking over his right shoulder to understand the picture around him, Chukwuemeka demands the ball, receives it and in one touch flips City’s press. With his athletic qualities he can turn and drive into the afforded space behind City’s midfield.
Chukwuemeka’s intelligent movement to pick up space and read key passages of play is an important part of his role. When on the ball, he’s a proper footballer. He possesses the technical capabilities to contribute to Villa’s goal output after carrying the ball from deeper lying areas.
Leaving his mark on the game
Despite enjoying success in taking the ball in pressured situations within his own half, often to progress the ball through the lines after receiving from defenders, Chukwuemeka’s box-to-box game determines that he can too retain possession further up the field.
This example explores this idea.
In contrast to the earlier example of receiving a throw-in against Reading, here against Swansea, Chukwuemeka comes short to hold off two markers. Receiving the ball in a tight pocket, surrounded by opponents, he shields the ball all before knowing his next positive move.
He’s as confident as you get for a midfielder willing to take on an opponent. With the execution to back it up, as we can see from the next frame, Chukwuemeka turns the defenders who were both keen to push him away from goal.
You won’t find too many central midfielders appearing on the left wing only minutes after cooly beating a high press in his own half. Energetic and intelligent with his movement and selection pass too, Chukwuemeka has all the hallmarks of an all-round midfielder that with the experience of some u23 games next season, can develop to become the player he wants to be.
Villa’s academy bosses are pinning their hopes on the England youngster and the next 18 months will be vital to his development and maturing as a quality, young footballer. Among a host of other promising teens, Chukwuemeka will make the step up to Villa’s u23 side next season.