Victor Osimhen: Why Napoli’s Man Utd target can be ‘the world’s best’

The smile on Victor Osimhen’s face after yet another tussle with Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu in the second minute of first-half stoppage time of Napoli’s game with AC Milan last Sunday was recognisable.

It was unmistakable despite the protective mask Osimhen has worn since his return from facial surgery in January, and it demonstrated how much the Nigerian was enjoying his battle with both AC Milan centre-backs, who incessantly doubled-up on him in Sunday’s top-of-the-table Serie A clash.

In a sense, it was the perfect tribute to Osimhen’s menace that Milan boss Stefano Pioli had given his centre-back pairing such a brief at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, intending to neutralise the striker’s undoubted threat.

The marksman always fancies himself in a one-v-one, believing in his pace and acceleration to surge beyond his marker.

Yet it was no surprise when Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti recently admonished the 23-year-old frontman for breaking away from the team’s tactical approach and doing his own thing.

“A deadly striker, he has infinite potential,” the Napoli boss told Sky Sport Italia after Napoli’s 1-1 draw with Inter Milan in February. “Sometimes he disconnects a little from the team because he goes to attack three or four opponents alone, or other times he cuts towards the flag.”

Monitoring Spalletti’s assessment of the gangly frontman throughout the campaign has been fascinating, to say the least.

The ex-Roma head coach’s candour and tough love with Osimhen have been noticeable from last summer since taking over from Gennaro Gattuso, who was sacked after failing to secure a Champions League spot for the Partenopei.

Immediately, Spalletti recommended a reduced intensity off the ball, suggesting Osimhen put the energy expended sometimes haphazardly in his debut season in Serie A to better use.

• • • •

Atlanta Olympic Games .... Soccer Final - Argentina v Nigeria The Nigerian team celebrate after winning the Gold Medal 03 August 1996

READ: When Nigeria’s Dream Team crushed Ronaldo & Crespo for Olympic glory

• • • •

“Osimhen is a striker who can transform every ball that comes his way into chances,” Spalletti noted in late July. “He is a very generous player who runs a lot but this intensity can cause him some mistakes, but he is an important player, complete and we aim a lot on him.”

Interestingly, the underlying statistics reveal the Nigerian is taking his manager’s advice on board, with a reduced average in the young striker’s pressing numbers compared to his only year in Ligue 1 and debut campaign in Italy.

And it seems to have helped. Osimhen has already surpassed last season’s tally of 10 goals, with 11 in 23 games so far in 2021-22.

Still, the young striker’s inclination to lead a one-man press is intermittently evident. He cannot help himself.

Indeed, with harrying the opposition a prevalent component of the best sides these days, any team looking at Osimhen would not have to worry about or question his tenacity and industry. Rather, channelling it effectively to help the team is the ultimate objective.

It is for this reason that the Nigerian’s continued evolution under Spalletti makes for interesting viewing. The ex-Inter boss has a knack for getting the best from central strikers of different profiles, managing Francesco Totti, Edin Dzeko and Mauro Icardi to their highest league returns in 2006-07, 2016-17 and 2017-18 respectively. Many hope Napoli’s No.9 is next in line.

Napoli striker Victor Osimhen and manager Luciano Spalletti during the game against Hellas Verona at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Naples. November 2021.

Napoli striker Victor Osimhen and manager Luciano Spalletti during the Serie A TIM game against Hellas Verona at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Naples. November 2021.

Osimhen, without a doubt, is the rawest of the quartet, perhaps indicating why Spalletti has at times appeared finicky with his star striker.

The Nigeria international is blessed with bags of pace to be a threat in behind, runs the channels consistently and has the aggression reminiscent of ex-Chelsea and Atletico Madrid forward Diego Costa, the latter landing him in hot water at the start of this season, albeit harshly.

Still, it did not prevent stern words from the Napoli boss, who reprimanded the frontman following the opening-day sending off against Venezia.

“The expulsion of Osimhen? He has to be careful of his emotional reactions,” Spalletti said after that 2-0 win in August. “He is a strong attacker and all defenders will help each other. He will always have his hands on the defenders. He must be careful.”

This aggression was evident in Sunday’s 1-0 defeat by Milan, where he received his fourth league booking of the season after a flashpoint with Theo Hernandez with 15 minutes remaining.

While the forward’s sights of goal were few and far between, the threat he poses running onto the ball was evident with five minutes of normal time to play. On a rare occasion where Tomori lost sight of the frontman, Adam Ounas’ through-ball released Osimhen who out-paced and fought off Kalulu before forcing a save from Mike Maignan from a tight angle.

It was a glimpse of the forward’s menace in such situations, an aspect of his game Spalletti already commended earlier this season.

“We have quality in attack. Victor [Osimhen] is really strong, he lacks quality in tight spaces, but it’s hard to catch him in open spaces,” the Napoli boss noted after a 4-0 win over Udinese in September.

While he has intermittently received criticism for the ill-timed runs, the clinical edge he possesses inside the box when the service is right is without question. And if Napoli do go on to win the league, despite their loss to Milan, he will be one of the stars of their campaign.

“Napoli are solid, they can win the Scudetto. But beware of the two sides from Milan,” former Ballon d’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro told Tribal Football earlier this season.

“Spalletti’s team looks like a wall at times and have different solutions. Osimhen was thought to be a crazy horse, but in the box, he knows how to hurt the opponents.”

This was demonstrated in that stunning performance at the King Power Stadium in the Europa League Group Stage in which Osimhen almost singlehandedly forced a 2-2 draw having been 2-0 down.

The latter of the marksman’s brace saw him rise above the Leicester City defence and Caglar Soyuncu, thereafter directing the header beyond Kasper Schmeichel.

It was (whisper it) analogous to headed goals from Cristiano Ronaldo over the years in which the legendary Manchester United man has towered above the opposition, seemingly suspended himself in the air and used his neck muscles to do damage.

Indeed, Osimhen’s strength in the air is an underrated asset that has rather gone unnoticed this term, with observers often lauding his pace, upper-body strength and intelligence of movement in both channels.

Goals against Torino, Venezia and, recently, Cagliari have helped to take him to seven Serie A goals for the campaign, with nearly half coming with his head.

The forward, who draws inspiration from ex-Chelsea frontman Didier Drogba, may still be rough around the edges a bit — many might even say unrefined — but the growth since 2020 is attracting overtures from Premier League sides.

Far from the finished article, there is untapped potential in the menacing 23-year-old who learned to play more with team-mates in year one in Italy and is slowly picking his moments to harry the opposition in his second season.

Rather than simply press chaotically as seen last term, Osimhen waits for those around him these days, signalling some progress in that area as well.

Throw in the already intimidating pace, strength and smart movement and you wonder just how high the Nigerian’s ceiling is.

“Osimhen’s talent is stratospheric and I cannot comprehend the levels he could potentially reach,” Spalletti told Radio Kiss Kiss last month. “Victor is the one who needs to understand first and foremost what he could become because he can achieve so much.”

Just how good will he get when he finally absorbs Spalletti’s methods and is in sync with the team’s movements?

According to Inter great Christian Vieri: “Osimhen is really good, in a year he will be one of the best in the world.

“He needs to improve when he is on the edge of the area, in the first shot, in the speed of execution. If he improves in this type of situation, he becomes one of the best.”

High praise. But few know the art better than Vieri.

By Seye Omidiora

More from Planet Football

Ranking every African player to play for Man Utd from worst to best

Mark Fish: Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics put me off signing for Man Utd

16 of the best quotes on Diego Maradona: ‘The greatest of all time’

Can you name every African player to score 5+ Champions League goals?