Samuel Chukwueze: Another false dawn or much-needed Milan upswing?

Samuel Chukwueze has played second fiddle to Christian Pulisic under Stefano Pioli in year one in Milan (Imago)


AC Milan boss Stefano Pioli has preferred Christian Pulisic to Samuel Chukwueze this season (Imago)

Samuel Chukwueze: Another false dawn or much-needed Milan upswing?

Seye Omidiora 11:48 - 29.03.2024

The forward netted for the first time in Serie A before the international break, but has that really moved the needle for the struggling Super Eagles forward?

The buzz that dominated when Samuel Chukwueze’s move to AC Milan from Villarreal was in its final stages has given way to disappointment. 

The expectation that followed the wide attacker’s switch to Milanello has been replaced by hoping against hope. Wishing that one of the pricey acquisitions from summer 2023 turns out well. Hoping that the Nigerian will not crumble under the increased expectations at San Siro and deliver on the promise that convinced the Rossoneri to invest heavily in his talent, splurging €20m on the 24-year-old.   

Observers of a Premier League persuasion may scoff at the Nigeria international’s transfer fee, a figure newly-promoted sides in England’s top-flight dispense without much thought. However, the financial realities of Serie A clubs mean the transfer fee was a king’s ransom that needed to be spent smartly.  

Why AC Milan signed Chukwueze

At the time, Chukwueze to Milan made sense — it still might turn out well — but the former Villarreal man probably never expected a thorny maiden season under Stefano Pioli. The transfer was made possible by Sandro Tonali’s sale to Newcastle United, and the Rossoneri reinvested most of that transfer fee into four major acquisitions: Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Christian Pulisic, Tijjani Reijnders and Chukwueze. 

The rationale was logical, especially seeing how Milan lacked bite in Rafael Leao’s absence at various points in the previous season. It came to a head in the Champions League semi-final defeat by Inter, with Pioli’s team barely laying a glove on Simone Inzaghi’s men in possibly their most important game of the season. 

Given Chukwueze transferred to the club having had continental experience in the Champions League, notably scoring the goal that sank Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals two years back and was part of Unai Emery’s group that won the Europa League in 2020-21, acquiring a player of that calibre seemed astute. However, the season has not gone according to plan for the Super Eagle. 

AC Milan's Samuel Chukwueze
Samuel Chukwueze has so far had a below-par time at AC Milan (Imago)

Of the four central summer signings, the Nigerian has delivered the least. Loftus-Cheek is showing the end product to match his admirable ball-carrying and upper-body strength, Pulisic has overcome his injury bugbear at Chelsea to become the joint-top scoring USMNT player in Serie A and Reijnders’ box-to-box potential has been evident. 

The same cannot be said for Chukwueze, with moments of spark few and far between. To pick a few: the forward’s Champions League goals against PSG at San Siro and away at Newcastle United are standout moments. The latter was especially beneficial as it kept Milan in Europe, avoiding the ignominy of exiting continental competition altogether.  

var widgetLoaderConfig = widgetLoaderConfig || { CDN_URL: '', APP_LINK: 'desktop', API_URL: '', API_KEY: '2f852b4de2f3a5cf3188e74b33087bb4:2c18422f8e826a7d11aeed52edb2449e', LANG: 'en', REQUEST_INTERVAL: 30, ENABLE_BET_SLIP: false, AUTHOR: false, THEME: "light", TOURNAMENT_ORDER: "pulse_nigeria", LINK_OPTIONS_V2: { 'player' : { 'url': '/football/player/{playerId}' }, 'team' : { 'url': '/football/{teamId}' }, 'tournament': { 'url': '/football/competition/{tournamentId}' }, 'match': { 'url' : '/football/match/{matchId}', 'sort': { 'criteria': 'alphabetically', 'direction': 'asc' } }, 'configuration': { 'newWindow': false }, 'standings_tournament': { 'url': '/football/competition/{tournamentId}/standings' } } }; if (!document.querySelector('script[src=""]')) { window.setTimeout(function () { let scriptCss = document.createElement('link'); scriptCss.href = ''; scriptCss.rel = 'stylesheet'; scriptCss.type = 'text/css'; document.body.appendChild(scriptCss); let scriptTag = document.createElement('script'); scriptTag.src = ''; scriptTag.defer = true; scriptTag.onload = function () { window.setTimeout(function () { new SMPWidgetsLoader(widgetLoaderConfig); }, 200); }; document.head.appendChild(scriptTag); }, 0); } else { new SMPWidgetsLoader(widgetLoaderConfig); }

Why has Chukwueze struggled at AC Milan?

However, the Nigerian has still not kicked on, and there is little confidence that scoring for the first time in Serie A before the international break will move the needle. Understanding Chukwueze’s Milan struggles could be traced to the start of his Rossoneri journey, arriving later than the club’s other major summer signings. 

Samuel Chukwueze Christian Pulisic
Christian Pulisic has outperformed Samuel Chukwueze in their debut seasons at AC Milan (Imago)

The Super Eagles forward’s deal was confirmed on July 27, with pre-season already ongoing. For context, Loftus-Cheek's move to the Serie A giants was announced on June 30, Pulisic's on July 13 and Reijnders on July 19. How much impact that has had on an underwhelming start is up for debate, but the Nigerian was playing catch-up from the get-go. 

On the pitch, Chukwueze was not helped by Pioli forgoing his previously utilised 4-2-3-1 for the 4-3-3, meaning Pulisic — capable of playing behind the centre-forward — took up the slot on the right side of attack.

The Parma-born coach has recently reverted to the title-winning formation, but Loftus-Cheek’s goalscoring form from attacking midfield, Pulisic not letting up, and Leao practically being undroppable points to a continued bit-part role for Chukwueze in the campaign’s closing weeks. 

“Chukwueze is in his first Serie A season, where the demands upon him are certainly different to those he had at Villarreal,” said Pioli after the forward’s first Serie A goal at Hellas Verona. “He is working hard and trying, but sometimes people rush to judge players. I am glad for the goal and that he is coming on with the right attitude when called upon. We have the necessary patience to wait for all our players to develop.”

Having had the last fortnight in Milanello, with Pulisic away with the USMNT’s CONCACAF Nations League-winning squad, Chukwueze, not part of Nigeria group that took on Ghana and Mali, hopes to get considerable game time to add to his seven Serie A starts. 

Provided the Rossoneri are not in danger of losing a top-four berth in the league — they hold an eight-point advantage over Bologna in fourth, and 11 points separate them from fifth-placed Roma — and progress in the Europa League, the Nigerian could be trusted to play from the off in the coming weeks. 

Those opportunities must be taken when they arise for the hitherto disappointing Chukwueze. One goal at the Bentegodi has not moved the needle, but there is time for an underwhelming first year in Milan to have a satisfactory ending.