Ademola Lookman’s Time Has Finally Come

There are as many different career trajectories in soccer as there are individual players. Nonetheless, certain paths share some overarching similarities from which you can fashion several different archetypes. To list just a few: the longtime journeymen who eventually find something like a forever home; the born superstars who appear destined for greatness as youngsters and sure enough go on to achieve it; the players who weren’t considered big talents as kids but who explode into stardom out of nowhere.

As a fan following from the outside, each archetypical trajectory offers its own delights, but one of my favorites is the one where a young stud will burst onto the scene and generate tons of hype, only for the hype to die down when the youngster experiences the natural struggles of development, and when all is quiet and the player has been more or less written off as a bust, the player’s talent erupts after all, old expectations finally met. Like any good soccer fan/soccer video game enthusiast, I love the bounty of insultingly young hotshots each new season brings, and the idle fun there is in forecasting their potential futures in my mind’s eye. At the same time, I hate the fickleness of the hype cycle, which gorges itself on new “surefire, can’t-miss, buy-now superstars of tomorrow” every year and makes room for the next group by callously vomiting out yesterday’s batch as “uncoachable, injury-prone, mentally weak, don’t-love-the-game BUSTS.” Hype is a burden even in the best of circumstances, and it sucks when it’s followed by an even more cumbersome backlash, especially in the common case where the only thing the player in question has done “wrong” is fail to, like, win the Ballon d’Or by their 20th birthday. Navigating that hype-to-backlash cycle must be hard, so it’s great to see someone come out the other side, if not unscathed then hardened, sharpened by the experience.

It’s my affinity for this comeback narrative, and my hope that the career in question might one day swerve in its direction, that has had me pulling for Ademola Lookman over the past several years. I remember when the then-19-year-old forward joined Everton in 2017, having made a name for himself as one of the most promising talents in England’s lower leagues with Charlton Athletic. I remember hearing about how well he’d played at the U-20 World Cup later that same year, when he and his England teammates helped (youth) football come home by winning the competition. I remember seeing brief flashes of his talent during those first 12 months with Everton, but being disappointed that he apparently wasn’t doing enough in training to get much playing time. I remember understanding his frustration when he sought a loan move in January of 2018, and I remember getting annoyed at how annoyed Everton was about Lookman choosing to join Leipzig in the Bundesliga over the domestic second-division loans Everton preferred. I remember being happy when I saw that Lookman scored in his first appearance for Leipzig, and I remember the feeling of vicarious vindication when I’d check the scores of Leipzig’s games and find Lookman getting minutes and goals, the very things Everton doubted would come his way when he made the more ambitious choice to pick the Bundesliga over the Championship. (Lookman made seven starts and four substitute appearances in that half season with Leipzig, compiling five goals and three assists.)

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Coming off that successful loan in Germany, if you were looking to fit Lookman’s career trajectory circa 2018 into an archetype, you probably would’ve placed him in what is now known as the Jadon Sancho category: a young Englishman who didn’t have the trust of his Premier League team, who then fled for the famously youth-friendly confines of Germany, and blew up there. Instead, right when it looked like the arrow was pointing up for Lookman, things started to go backwards.

My memories of Lookman’s career over the next couple years are less notable. I remember him returning to Everton from Leipzig, and him doing next to nothing with his pretty frequent substitute appearances. I remember being encouraged when he followed that forgettable season with a full transfer that sent him back to Leipzig, and then being bummed when his first season there was even more anonymous than his last season at Everton. I remember his subsequent loans in the Premier League, first with Fulham and then Leicester City, where he played a lot (31 league starts for a relegated Fulham, 26 appearances for Leicester) but only decently. Lookman came out of that Leicester season at 24 years old, four years past that hype-swelling Leipzig loan, five years out from the Everton move and the impressive U-20 World Cup win, a prime candidate for the dreaded bust label.

I don’t remember hearing about it when Lookman signed with Atalanta in the summer of 2022, such was the distance his star had fallen. I believe I only realized he was there when, due to my passing interest in Serie A and, in particular, the exploits of Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini, beloved by soccer hipsters the world over, I pulled up the stats of one of their matches and saw the now Nigerian international in the lineup. (After waiting around for an senior England call-up that never came, Lookman decided to represent his parents’ native country.) Gasperini is renown for his ability to unlock attacking talents, so I was excited about Lookman’s prospects in Italy. If it was ever going to come together for Lookman, Atalanta looked like the perfect place to make it so.

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Since first noticing he was at the club, I have regularly, though passively, monitored Lookman’s progress by checking the team’s and his personal stats, and seeing what the Serie A fans I follow have to say about him. I’ve consistently been pleased by what I’ve found. While starting out as a rotation option along La Dea‘s forward line, Lookman has driven, dribbled, and scored his way into being one of the team’s key players. The 2022-23 season was Lookman’s long-awaited true breakout. He led Atalanta in scoring with 13 goals in Serie A play, adding to that six assists. He’s followed that up with nine goals and another six assists in league play this season, to go with the five goals and one assist he contributed to Atalanta’s Europa League campaign.

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While Lookman’s speed and dominance in 1-v-1 situations led previous managers to use him primarily out near the touchline, Gasperini saw in his quick thinking, elusiveness in tight spaces, scoring touch, and knack for the killer pass someone whose impact would balloon the closer he was to the penalty box. This made the sort of hybrid, wide striker/No. 10 position in Atalanta’s 3-4-2-1 formation perfect for the Nigerian. That position, Atalanta’s direct and voracious attacking style, and Gasperini’s trust were all Lookman needed to unlock his abilities and at last become the kind of top-level forward he threatened to be way back when.

The crowning achievement of Lookman’s career came this week, when Atalanta met Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League final on Wednesday. Most expected the theretofore unbeatable German team to romp over its Italian opponent, maybe off the back of a star performance from one of its highly hyped talents like Florian Wirtz, Victor Boniface, or Jeremie Frimpong. Instead it was Lookman who stole the show. The Nigerian played the game of his life, exploding into the open space behind Leverkusen’s high back line, whirling past any defender silly enough to challenge him directly, constantly finding and then punishing any weak points in the opponent’s penalty box. Atalanta won the match easily, 3-0, and Lookman scored all the goals. It was the first hat trick of his career, and the first hat trick in a European final in 50-some years. Each goal was more impressive than the previous, and each time Lookman scored he celebrated not in giddy bewilderment, the performance a surprise as much to himself as anyone else, but rather with steely confidence. He seemed to want to convey that he always knew he had this in him, and at last could show the world what he had been envisioning his whole life.

Lookman admitted as much after the game. “Ademola, huge congratulations this evening,” a British reporter prefaced his question to the final’s star in the postgame press conference, adding that Wandsworth, the area of London Lookman is from, and Charlton Athletic both must be looking on in pride after one of their own had done that. The reporter continued, “Could you have imagined in your remotest, wildest dreams when you were a Charlton boy that this night would materialize for you?”

“Yeah. Probably, yeah,” Lookman responded, staring back at the reporter and nodding for a couple beats, which called to mind the same cool gaze and steady nods he cast around the stadium’s stands right after he’d detonated the ball into Leverkusen’s net for the third and final time a little while earlier. “I’ve always had the confidence in my ability.” He went on to say that at Atalanta he’s been able to take his game to “a new level” of consistency. “Maybe it would’ve came earlier!” he said with a smirk. “But it’s come now. I’m pleased with the progress that I’ve made, but this is just the beginning.”

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Lookman, now 26, understands the importance of beginnings. He invited Felix Emanus, one of the coaches from Waterloo, the tiny local team where he got his start as a player before getting picked up by Charlton at 16, to Wednesday’s final. TNT Sports caught up with Emanus after the game, where he joined the broadcast for an extremely cute interview. Emanus raved about how good of a player Lookman is and especially how great of a person he is. The coach was clearly overwhelmed with emotion just talking about his former protege. “I cried when the third goal went in, I’ve got to tell you—and I don’t cry!” He ended the interview by reading the long motivational text he sent Lookman before the final, one of the messages he says he sends Lookman before every game. “Time to deliver one of those Waterloo-type performances” one of the lines read. Lookman certainly came through on his end.

Where will this new beginning Lookman spoke about in the postgame presser take him? Almost certainly to the Champions League, where he hasn’t been since his lone appearance in the competition with Leipzig in October of 2019. Atalanta had already qualified for Europe’s premier continental tournament by finishing fifth in Serie A this season, so the victory in the Europa final, which comes with a spot in the UCL, really was, as Emanus said in his text to Lookman, just “icing on the cake” of an already great season. It’s possible Lookman won’t be joining La Dea in the tournament, though. In light of his last couple seasons in Italy and Wednesday’s incandescent showing, there will likely be lots of suitors lining up to bring him to their clubs. Whether he stays or leaves, though, he’ll very likely be plying his trade for a team in the Champions League, where he’s proven his now-realized talent belongs.

Personally, I hope he stays with Atalanta. The setup there fits him so well, and it would be a small shame if he signs with like an Arsenal or some similar club that would see him more as quality depth than as a centerpiece. Lookman has spent so long trying to get somewhere, a place that offered him the platform and patience to let him become himself. Whether it’s at Atalanta or somewhere else, his next challenge will be to stay right where he’s at.

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