Last season, Taiwo Awoniyi’s goals were instrumental in helping Union Berlin qualify for the Europa League which has earned him a move to newly promoted Premier League Nottingham Forest. Let’s look at what type of player they are getting for €20m.
Having struggled to gain a work permit while at Liverpool, Awoniyi spent the 2019/20 season on loan at Mainz. Despite playing just 12 Bundesliga games, he showed enough promise to impress Union head coach, Urs Fischer, to sign the Nigerian forward on loan for the 2020/21 season, his seventh loan spell at a club. Whilst it initially took him several weeks to find his rhythm, Awoniyi eventually established himself as a regular for Fischer, scoring five goals before a muscle injury effectively curtailed his year.
Despite this, the club were keen to keep him and a permanent deal was reached with Liverpool. Signed for a reported €7.5m, the Nigerian was expected to be a key figure in Union’s frontline, playing alongside veteran forward Max Kruse. With the team also juggling European football commitments alongside the Bundesliga for the first time, the need for him to score often was huge. As Die Eisernen was in the bottom-half among Bundesliga clubs for goals scored during the previous year, their success hinged on him taking the next step forward.
Three goals in the first three league games was the perfect start for the striker, who quickly showed himself to be a handful for opposing defenders. With Union defeated just four times in the first half of the league campaign, Awoniyi played his part superbly in making his team difficult to beat. This included a match-winning brace in a 2-1 win at Mainz, with the forward’s direct runs and strength causing problems throughout the game. This game highlighted his successful link-up play with Kruse, who provided several penetrating through-balls that the 24-year-old often took advantage of.
Leaving for the African Cup of Nations in January, he was immediately put back into the starting line-up upon his return. He ended up starting every remaining Bundesliga fixture bar one, finding his scoring touch once again with a run of five goals in seven matches. This came despite the loss of Kruse, who departed in January, with Sheraldo Becker stepping up to partner the Nigerian in attack. Crucially, he scored four times in a seven-game unbeaten run to close out the year as Union fought their way into the qualification fight for European football.
With the race coming down to the final day, Awoniyi’s coolly slotted penalty, followed by an ice-cold finish in the 88th minute, secured a dramatic 3-2 win over Bochum. The result meant Union ended the campaign in fifth place, their highest placing ever in the Bundesliga and bringing Europa League football to the German capital for next season. Ending with 15 league goals, and 20 in all competitions, he had firmly established himself as a breakout player in Germany, unsurprisingly earning interest from numerous clubs.
Clearly, Awoniyi is a superb finisher. According to FBRef.com, he ranked among the top five Bundesliga players for expected goals per 90 minutes, showing just how reliable he had become in front of goal. Fischer’s direct style of play often led to many counter-attacks with the 24-year-old making direct runs into the penalty area. Kruse and Becker would both then be tasked with finding the striker in space, allowing him to work on holding off defenders in possession and infiltrate the attacking third, before he created a shooting chance.
His strength and movement also allow for him to succeed in bringing teammates into the game, especially after controlling a lofted pass and getting the ball to a runner in space.
Whilst being a superb finisher, Awoniyi was never asked to act as a creator by Union. Consequently, his distribution numbers don’t rank highly and at times he struggled to execute the right pass in the final third. It’s important to emphasise just how much he is reliant on having creative runners alongside or just behind him, so that they can provide the service he needs to thrive off.
Another area of improvement concerns his aerial skills, with only two goals last season being headers. Standing at 6’0” tall, he battles hard in contests but ultimately, he shouldn’t be expected to dominate in the air. Fischer’s focus on compact defending additionally meant the Nigerian was never asked to make intensive defensive pressures on opponents, explaining why his defensive statistics aren’t very impressive.
Despite this, he undeniably will score goals when played to his strengths, which undoubtedly convinced Forest to sign him. Union will certainly need to replace him this summer, ahead of a busy campaign with European football to come. Equipped with €20m, they have a knack for making great signings and likely will do so again to find a new striker or two. That said, Forest fans should be very excited about Awoniyi’s addition, who can become a reliable goal threat able to thrive on a bigger stage.