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Ademola Lookman: My game in my words

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You would be forgiven for thinking that Ademola Lookman might be in the twilight of his career.

Nearly 10 years on from his first-team debut for Charlton Athletic, Lookman has since enjoyed spells at five further clubs across three European leagues, gaining a wealth of experience at the highest level.

Yet, somehow, he is still only 26 years old. Like a scene from the film Interstellar, we normal folk have managed to grow old while Lookman is arguably only just reaching his peak age as a footballer — a testament to his early rise in the professional game.



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At Atalanta in Serie A, he is playing the most consistent football of his career.

“I’ve played a lot of football and learned a lot of things in my time here already,” Lookman tells The Athletic. “I wish it would have come earlier, but that’s the way football is sometimes and it’s a process of continuing to learn.”

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(Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Before his move to Atalanta, Lookman’s career had seen him play for a host of different managers at Charlton, Everton, RB Leipzig, Fulham and Leicester City. However, in Gian Piero Gasperini he has found a settled manager — the longest serving in Serie A, now into his eighth season — in a settled side, which reflects the level of consistency that Lookman is playing with since making the move to Italy at the start of the 2022-23 season.

“Over the years, Atalanta have been known for playing attacking football, so for me to come into this positive style of play is great for me as an attacker,” says Lookman. “The Mister (Gasperini) is very big on playing forward and creating many opportunities to score goals. For me, he has made my football much simpler in how I think about it.”

Having sampled football in Italy, England and Germany’s top divisions, the natural question to ask is which of the three leagues accentuates Lookman’s attributes the most?

“The Premier League is definitely suited to my style because it’s fast, technical, physical — and it’s the country I grew up in,” says Lookman. “But learning about the culture of football in Italy is really special. The build-up to the games, the atmosphere in the stadium and the love that the fans have for football. It’s very special.”

Tactically, the Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A have notable differences in the demands placed on players. While it would be over-simplistic to continue to flog the Catenaccio stereotype in Italy, space can still be at a premium for attacking players and Lookman highlights how much he has learned to adapt his game on and off the ball.

“Often, when I play against certain defenders their job is to eliminate space for me and give me the least amount of time on the ball,” says Lookman. “For me, my job is always to try to get that space and time — whether that’s with a movement, a call, or a counter-movement. It can be crucial where I place myself in and out of possession. Those little five metres or two metres. They make a big difference.”

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(Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Getty Images)

There is a maturity in the way that the south Londoner thinks about the game, underpinned by his experience working within so many different environments.

“I feel like I understand football a lot more now,” Lookman reveals. “Previously, I never used to view football the way I view it now. When I watch games, I look for certain things in terms of movements and spaces — those little details that I never really used to look for before.”

The little details have clearly gone a long way. At the top end of the field, Lookman is averaging a goalscoring return of better than a goal every two games in Serie A in Gaperini’s 3-5-2 system.

When looking at the evolution of his shots since 2020-21, you can see that he is shooting more often than ever (3.1 shots per 90), from a shorter distance from goal (14.1 yards), and has crafted a clear zone from which he likes to take aim.

ademola lookman all shots

With eight Serie A goals this season, Lookman will still be hoping to beat his career-best 13 goals last campaign as he led Atalanta’s goalscoring charts — four more than Rasmus Hojlund.

Most notably, he has developed a knack for ghosting into central positions between the width of the goal for a first-time finish. While this season has seen Lookman arrive more often from the left flank, his flexibility has proven he is also capable of the same action from the right wing across his time in Italy — as shown below.

lookman back post

It is a habit that Lookman has honed over time, with the advice of Atalanta’s head of senior recruitment Lee Congerton, who was also at Leicester City during Lookman’s single season in 2021-22.

“Lee has always said to me that I need to arrive in the middle of the goal frame — that’s where I’ll get my goals from,” says Lookman. “Getting into the box is key as an attacking player but I’ve always tried to arrive into those spaces, anticipating the action before it actually happens. It’s about being in space to arrive and finish.”

Premier League fans might reference such first-time finishes being modelled on a peak Raheem Sterling in his ability to ghost into such areas, but does Lookman have a particular player that he has shaped his game on?

“The guy who I always looked at the most would have to be Sadio Mane,” says Lookman. “Looking at his threat in the box, his threat in those little tight spaces, his movement — I have watched a lot of his game in particular.”



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Clearly, the subtleties of those movements and actions on the pitch are not by luck, but by design. Beyond taking inspiration from other players, Lookman scrutinises his own game with video analysis after each match.

“I watch my clips back, and it’s nice to be able to see your performance from a different perspective. It gives you more belief in knowing that you’re getting better and developing in certain areas.”

“I also have a couple of mentors who will sit down with me and analyse my game. Having their view on certain situations and certain parts of my game helps a lot to get those different perspectives.”

Gasperini’s focus on progressive attacking play has undoubtedly helped Lookman add more goals to his game. In the manager’s fluid 3-5-2 system, it is difficult for defenders to track Lookman’s runs — and even more difficult to pin the Nigerian international to a specific position. So how would he define his role?

“I wouldn’t really call myself a winger,” Lookman says.

“I think a winger is someone who stays out wide, waits for the ball, and looks to take his man on — which I can do. But I think my game is broader: I can play inside, I can play wide, I can score goals. I can be a threat in a box, I can head the ball, I can pass and create. So, for me, I think that inside wide left area is where I can best play my game.”



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In his own words, Lookman has the versatility to mix up his game depending on the situation or opposition faced. From a playmaking perspective, he is comfortable coming inside to thread a pass — with either foot — from central areas…

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… but is equally adept at playing as a typical winger, squaring up his man and dribbling beyond him to get to the byline. As he showed this season against AC Milan…

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“As I received the ball here (facing Milan’s Samuel Chukwueze and Alessandro Florenzi), I think taking on a few players just comes naturally to me. That’s just off the cuff, looking to create for my team-mates.”

Few of Lookman’s team-mates have a better scoring record than he does since he joined, but he has had a lot of options to create for since he arrived in Bergamo, with the recently departed Hojlund and Luis Muriel replaced by attacking midfielder Charles De Ketelaere (on loan) and Gianluca Scamacca this season.

Such creative actions were on show as recently as last weekend during their 2-1 loss away to Cagliari, as Lookman’s ball played across the box to Scamacca saw the former bag his fourth league assist of the season.

lookman assist

“When I’m in those situations, it’s trying to hit the areas which are most dangerous. For example, Rasmus was very good at attacking the back post, and a lot of our attackers are good at attacking the box, so I can be confident that they will be there.”

Upcoming Europa League quarter-final opponents Liverpool will be well aware of Lookman’s double attacking threat, having received punishment first-hand during his season at Leicester in 2021-22 — one of only two Premier League losses that Jurgen Klopp’s side suffered all season.

Lookman’s winning goal brought together all of the skills he discussed within a single sequence of play. As he receives the ball on the halfway line, he drags Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson towards him, before zipping beyond the pair to receive a return pass from team-mate Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall.

As he attacks the box and bears down on goal, a reverse near-post finish wrong-foots Alisson to secure the winner for Brendan Rodgers’ side.

lookman leic liv

“Yeah, that was a big goal. We needed a big win at that time and obviously scoring a goal that won the game was a big boost to my confidence.

Lookman has two opportunities to inflict more misery on Liverpool as the pair battle for a spot in the Europa League semi-final. It is an occasion that Lookman relishes.

“The spectacle speaks for itself but, for us, there is an opportunity for us to go and show what we are about. We’ve earned the right to be here, so let’s go there and play our football.”

The winners of the Europa League have the added incentive of a place in next season’s Champions League, but with Italy looking the favourites to secure a fifth spot in the Champions League coefficient, Atalanta are hunting down a spot on the top European stage next season — sitting five points behind fifth-placed Roma with a game in hand.

While Lookman has had a taste of Champions League football at RB Leipzig in 2019-20, the opportunity to test himself against Europe’s elite sides will be an environment he would undoubtedly thrive in.

Beyond club football, there are few bigger stages than representing your country at a major international tournament.

No Nigerian player scored more than Lookman’s three goals as the Super Eagles reached the final of the African Cup of Nations at the start of this year, narrowly missing out on lifting the trophy after a 2-1 defeat to hosts Ivory Coast.



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“It was my first AFCON with my country and obviously coming so close and not winning was very disappointing — but the whole experience, morale and camaraderie around the competition was amazing.”

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(Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

From a personal perspective, Lookman took on the goalscoring burden ahead of reigning men’s African Footballer of the Year, Victor Osimhen — with a brace against Cameroon in the round of 16 followed up by the winner against Angola in the quarter-finals.

The type of goal scored? All first-time finishes after darting into the penalty area, of course.

“I was pleased to help the team in that way. We have a team that is very powerful, very strong, very fast. To be able to play that type of football with my team-mates, it was nice to be around.”

While Nigeria weren’t able to lift the trophy, Lookman’s performances were indicative of the confidence that he has been playing with since making the move to Italy.

The term ‘interstellar’ means being located between the stars but, at 26 years old, it is clear that Lookman has established himself as one of the brightest stars for both club and country.

(Top photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images; design: Sean Reilly)

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