The Nigeria international spoke to Pulse Sports about settling in and finding his best form in the Premier League, scoring at Old Trafford, and the challenge that drove him to join Nottingham Forest
Last Thursday, The Athletic reported, in an article about Nottingham Forest’s transfer deadline day, that Chelsea made an enquiry for Taiwo Awoniyi in the final 48 hours of the window. It was, of course, rebuffed.
The Nigeria international has been something of a thorn in the Blues’ side on his last two visits to Stamford Bridge (two goals in a 2-2 draw, one match-winning assist). However, their interest in him transcended those limited viewings: from the end of 2022/23 into the start of the current 2023/24 season, Awoniyi has been on a tear form-wise.
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That his form has carried over into this campaign is, to his mind, mostly a function of physical preparation, the import of which became even clearer to him after a groin injury ruled him out for eight weeks at the beginning of 2023. “I think, looking at the season, I was injured for a few months then, coming back from the injury, there were some drills I had to do for myself,” he tells Pulse Sports.
“For me, I kind of understand my body now, I understand more of myself. That's just the story for players: every player knows what they need to do to get better. During the offseason, this is what I kept on doing as well because those (drills) are the things that really keep me at the top of my game. Also, I've always believed this is the kind of player I am.”
Squad churn and faking out Onana
Despite an injury-punctuated start following his signing from Union Berlin in the summer of 2022, the 26-year-old hit double figures in his debut Premier League campaign, his goals not only keeping Forest afloat, but keeping the chaos at bay.
No club in Europe’s top five leagues has been as active in the market over the last two seasons as Forest, and the sheer amount of squad churn needed following their promotion from the EFL Championship in 2022 saw them struggle at the foot of the table for much of the ensuing campaign.
For strikers, whose output owes a great deal to forging cognitive and technical relationships with other members of the squad, it can be an especially difficult situation. It partly explains why, despite scoring on his home debut in a 1-0 win over West Ham, Awoniyi struggled to find his footing before the World Cup break. “That was the problem,” he admits.
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“Because we [were] kind of new to each other, we didn't get to understand each other much. So if, for example, (Morgan) Gibbs-White was going [one] way, I didn't know what I was (supposed to be) doing.
“As time went on, I knew… (Brennan) Johnson [has] left us, of course, but I already knew if he pushed the ball one, two times, I knew what he was doing. Then, Gibbs-White, he already knows what I want to do as well.
"So, for that kind of situation, the truth is, it needs time. And if you look at the Nottingham Forest of last season and this season, there is a big, big, big difference and the difference is just the time: time being together and working together as well.”
Part of building that understanding is what Awoniyi calls “striker meeting” where, before each game, the team’s forwards confer and exchange ideas. The objective: to do homework on the opposition, specifically on “how to beat the keeper, just the keeper”.
He offers some insight into his thought process for his early goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford, one which saw him equal the record previously held – jointly – by Mohamed Salah and Emmanuel Adebayor for goals scored in consecutive Premier League matches by an African player.
Despite running through on goal from inside his own half, Awoniyi laughs by the notion that he had a lot of time to think: that is just not a thing for strikers, even in that situation. Not with a full Old Trafford baying around you and Marcus Rashford, one of the quickest players in the division, bearing down.
So what was he doing, in lieu of thinking? Trying to remember his homework from the striker meeting.
“That goal – that kind of situation and that goal against Man United is something that I really thought of like a day before the game. Not about the amount of space… you visualise the possibility of a one-on-one with the keeper. That, ‘OK, if you get yourself one-on-one with the keeper, how do you go past the keeper?’
“Looking at (Andre) Onana, with his experience, we had only two possibilities. The first one was, for you to score [against] him, you have to chip; like, literally aim to lift it over because he’s kind of really quick to the ground. The second one was just that you keep on faking and faking…
“So I (went) for the second one, and it worked.”
A presentation and a challenge
It has at times seemed, over the last four months, that every decision Awoniyi has made has come off. He is in such a state of grace now. Yet, many questioned the wisdom of trading a starting spot at upwardly mobile Union Berlin – who will compete in the Champions League this season – for what was clearly going to be a relegation scrap with Forest in the Premier League.
The 26-year-old knows his own mind though, that much comes through talking with him. And when he decided he wanted a move to England’s top flight, Union, to their credit, gave their permission for him to discuss terms.
There was no shortage of suitors but, in Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis, Awoniyi had a long-term admirer: when the striker was still at Liverpool, Marinakis had tried to woo him to his other club, Olympiacos, but was turned down.
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This time, the Greek left nothing to chance. The player was partial to other offers that he “would like to keep secret”, but Forest carried out a proper charm offensive in Greece: Awoniyi met not just with the owner, but with manager Steve Cooper.
In that meeting, there was a video presentation aimed at showing him how he would fit into Cooper’s tactical structure. It was impressive how far back their preparation went.
“(Cooper) showed me a lot of clips of myself, what he thought I could do. I was in the meeting sitting down watching myself, like, the kind of data they had gathered… They went all the way from my clips in Belgium, everything I'd been doing during those loans and it kind of gave me the motivation that they really, really knew who they wanted as a player.
“It was more (based on) what I do really well, which they thought would fit in with the style of Nottingham Forest. And he also was like, ‘If you can do this part very well, I also have the part that I feel like, with my education, with everything I know about football, we can do to really make you a Premier League player.’ Then he showed me that aspect as well. But it was more about what I had done before – they really knew me as a player.”
Detailed though the presentation was, it is now fairly commonplace for clubs to pull that card in a bid to convince transfer targets, so it would hardly have sufficed by itself. What really swung it for Awoniyi, however, was Cooper’s appeal to his appetite for a challenge.
“The meeting with the owner and Steve Cooper was something that really pushed me because, for me, I'm this guy that loves challenges because I challenge myself.
“But the statement that struck me was when Steve Cooper said to me, ‘I heard you’re going to other clubs in the Premier League, but I'll tell you, if you don't come to me, you will regret it.’ And that was, for me, a big challenge. I really wanted to see what I would regret.”
What with playing at his best level yet, scoring against opponents great and small, catching the eye of ‘Big Six’ clubs and earning a nomination for the Premier League Player of the Month award for August, it is safe to say Awoniyi has no regrets whatsoever.
Neither do Nottingham Forest.