AS Jadon Sancho continues to thrive in the Bundesliga, another gifted English winger, Ademola Lookman, is floundering in Germany’s top flight. The former Everton wide man has started only one league game for RB Leipzig this season and, from a total of five Bundesliga appearances, has clocked a paltry cumulative game time of 159 minutes.
What is most puzzling about Lookman’s struggles in Germany is that his initial spell with Leipzig, on loan for the second half of the 2017-18 campaign, was so impressive. In 11 appearances for the Red Bull-owned club, he scored five goals and provided three assists, averaging a goal involvement every 72 minutes.
Such standout form and such a quick adaptation to life and football in a new country seemed to justify the youngster’s desire to leave Everton for Leipzig, with the player irking a puzzled Sam Allardyce, the Toffees’ manger at the time.
“It’s one of the most unusual situations I’ve been in,” Allardyce said of Lookman’s desire to push through a move to Germany, where he felt his style would be best suited and his game best developed, “where we’ve got some deals for him but he’s adamant he chooses Germany. But it’s his choice, so we’ve let him go where he wanted to.”
Everton had signed the highly rated Lookman from Charlton Athletic just a year earlier, beating off rival interest from several Premier League clubs to secure a deal for the winger worth an initial £7.5m. A rapid start saw him come off the bench to score the final goal in Everton’s 4-0 thrashing of Manchester City on his debut, but he fell down the pecking order under Allardyce the following season, with the technically skilled, tricky 5ft 9 wide man an ill fit for the manager’s direct, physical style.
Lookman’s skills were suited perfectly to how Ralph Hasenhuttl, now of Southampton, set up his Leipzig side, though. Deployed as one of the wide forwards in the Austrian coach’s 4-2-2-2, or occasionally more central in a 4-2-3-1, Lookman’s pace and direct dribbling style made him a potent weapon for Leipzig, whose approach was all about attacking rapidly through pressing blitzes and quick transitions.
“I didn’t come here to prove him [Allardyce] wrong,” Lookman later told the Daily Mail. “I came here for myself. I knew I’d made the right decision. I always back myself. I know what I’m capable of.”
When his six-month loan came to an end, Lookman was keen to stay with Leipzig, and the feeling was mutual from the German club’s perspective. But a deal couldn’t be struck and the England under-21 winger returned to Everton, beginning what was, developmentally, a lost year for the now 22-year-old. He remained out of favour with new manager Marco Silva the entire campaign, starting just three Premier League games.
An eventual return to Leipzig, then, secured thanks to a £22.5m deal, ought to have gotten Lookman’s career back on track. But he arrived back at the Red Bull Arena to find things had changed from when he’d last been there. Known to be a conscientious and intelligent young man, an avid reader and, as most would deem atypical of a footballer, a dedicated student during his school days, Lookman has embraced the change of culture and language necessitated by his move from England to Germany.
It is on the pitch where he now struggles, though. With Hasenhuttl at Southampton, Julian Nagelsmann, the 32-year-old coach tipped for future stardom, presides over Leipzig. The former Hoffenheim boss also espouses a pressing-based philosophy and Leipzig remain a devastating force in transition. But, crucially when it comes to Lookman’s prospects, he tends not to use traditional wingers, preferring instead a 3-5-2 shape, with wing-backs providing the width.
As such, Lookman has found his playing time severely curtailed, and his only Bundesliga start of the season so far, a 2-1 loss away to Freiburg in October, saw him play as a second striker behind Liverpool transfer target Timo Werner, a role he is ill-suited to. Lookman was reportedly close to a move back to England in January but a proposed loan switch to Newcastle United fell through. The midseason transfer window closed with him staying put, for now, and he has featured in just 37 minutes of all-competitions action since Germany returned from its winter break.
Swapping English football for the Bundesliga appeared, not so long ago, to be the perfect move for Lookman’s development. Now, a Premier League return might be his greatest salvation.