In an exclusive interview with Pulse Sports, Victor Boniface speaks on the origin of his game style, as well as his admiration for manager Xabi Alonso
In a summer window that saw Manchester United shell out €75 million for Rasmus Hojlund, Napoli frighten Victor Osimhen admirers off with a €150 million valuation, and Paris Saint-Germain commit €160 million to signing Randal Kolo Muani and Goncalo Ramos, the €20-odd million that Bayer Leverkusen paid for Victor Okoh Boniface could come to be looked upon as one of the bargains of the decade.
All of the above were spawned by more exciting leagues than the Belgian Pro, but to judge the quality of the wine by its skin would be a mistake in this case. With five goals in all competitions already since joining Die Werkself, the 22-year-old is already serving notice of his ability, and has drawn praise from manager Xabi Alonso, who in an interview with Bild described Boniface as “not just a classic striker, not just a regular poacher.”
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The word ‘complete’ has attached itself to the former Union St Gilloise striker, and for good reason too. Per Opta (via WhoScored and FBref), over the past year, he has been in the 95th percentile (of strikers) in all of Europe for progressive carries, successful take-ons, and assists per 90. And that is before even coming around to the goals: last season, he finished as joint top scorer in the UEFA Europa League with six goals, as part of a tally of 22 in 55 games.
“He does everything well,” Alonso said. “Not only with his game, he helps the team.”
High praise from Alonso, who is considered one of the brightest managerial prospects in Europe, and went some way toward backing up the hype with his run to the Europa League semi-finals last season. The former Real Madrid and Bayern Munich player was also one of the most accomplished midfielders of his generation who, among other things, won the 2010 World Cup with Spain and the Champions League in 2005 with Liverpool.
A self-confessed Arsenal fan (his no-look, standing foot pass is a tribute to Thierry Henry), Boniface tells Pulse Sports he was star-struck nonetheless upon meeting his new manager following his signing in the summer. “To work with a coach like Alonso is… Because, apart from him being a coach, he was also a great football player.
“I remember after I signed with Leverkusen, I had to do a meeting with him where he was, like, telling me the tactics and everything. In my head – but I didn’t say this to him – I was like, ‘Man, can you just wait let me snap a picture with you?’ He was telling me the reason why I was signed, but in my head I was like, you know, this guy's a legend!”
Alonso’s first briefing may not have gotten through much, but his new charge has nevertheless hit the ground running in his own inimitable style.
So, to what does that owe? More specifically, how does a centre-forward accrue such a diverse skill set? Boniface credits two things. First is a quote by Kjetil Knutsen – who managed him at Bodo/Glimt – that has stayed with him ever since: “If you invest in the team, the team will invest in you.” Second is, ironically, the fact that his development did not involve observing other centre-forwards at all.
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“Respect to all the great strikers and everything but me, I don't watch a lot of strikers’ videos, to be honest with you,” he says. “Recently I started watching, but before now I watched players like Neymar and (Hatem) Ben Arfa, you know?”
There is a pattern there: these are arch-entertainers, high on flair and expression, if not always efficiency. It certainly fits with Alonso’s assessment of Boniface as a player who “wants to enjoy the game”, although there is still a rational element to the striker’s choice of role model, as he explains.
“Why most people might see my play style and think it’s different is because, right through my academic time in Nigeria, I was playing as a number 10, as a midfielder. So I never watched… Like, if you come to my house up to this very moment, I still watch a lot of players like Santi Cazorla, for example, (Andres) Iniesta. I watched all those players because of, like, when they play in these small, tight spaces.”
Which is all well and good but, Neymar aside, none of these listed were particularly prolific, and a striker is still expected to score goals.
As it turns out, the Bundesliga affords Boniface ample opportunity to put his learning into practice, its transitional nature meaning that, when isolated against a defender or two, he can try a trick or two. “Not like you can do everything but you can learn from them (Neymar et al).” When it does come off, you get goals like his first against Darmstadt, a run from inside his own half that left a couple of defenders in the dirt.
Bayern Munich this weekend will present an altogether more stringent examination, possessing as they do an accomplished, skilled centre-forward of their own in Harry Kane. Leverkusen are perfect so far this season, and so it promises to be a cracker at Allianz Arena; best-case scenario is they keep that up, with Boniface continuing to dazzle; worst-case, Boniface gets a close-up view of what his final form might well look like.
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