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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Player Profile: Bundesliga beast, Victor Boniface

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Bayer Leverkusen have been one of Europe’s most impressive sides across the season’s opening weeks and it’s fair to say Victor Boniface has been a big factor in their stunning start.

The forward signed for Leverkusen last summer from Belgian side Union Saint-Gilloise and has hit the ground running in the Bundesliga to become one of the most talked about talents in Europe.

His performance have already caught the attention of Europe’s elite, but how has Boniface gone from unknown quantity to one of the Bundesliga’s best?

Boniface was born in Akure, but earned his first big break almost 300km to Nigeria’s south west in the nation’s most populous city, Lagos. His performances for Real Sapphire piqued the interest of Norwegian side Bodø/Glimt, who were at the beginning of a period of overachievement.

Sparked by intelligent recruitment, the club won the Eliteserien for the first time in 2020, retained it the following season, and impressed in Europe, including a memorable 6-1 thrashing of Roma.

Boniface’s time at Bodø/Glimt was far from plain sailing. The teenager suffered two ACL injuries, missing much of the 2019 and 2021 Norwegian seasons through injury. He returned to form and fitness in 2022, where a 14-goal campaign earned the Nigerian a €6m move to Union Saint-Gilloise.

With the backing of Brighton chairman Tony Bloom, the Belgian side were promoted back into the top tier for the first time in 48 years in 2021, before securing Europa League qualification on their first campaign back in the Pro League.

Boniface’s first season with the club saw Union Saint-Gilloise narrowly miss out on the title and while the forward’s form domestically was modest – scoring nine times in 37 games – he thrived in Europe. The Nigerian ended the campaign as the joint-leading scorer in the Europa League as Les Unionistes reached the last eight, scoring six times in nine appearances.

After one season in Belgium, Leverkusen came calling for the burly Boniface and signed the striker in a deal worth €20m (£17.4m). Leverkusen had struggled for goals in 2022/23, while leading scorer Moussa Diaby was then sold to Aston Villa. The club’s second highest Bundesliga scorer last season was wing-back Jeremie Frimpong, who scored eight goals.

The lack of an out-and-out centre-forward saw Leverkusen land at Boniface, as the Germans began to build under Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard had inherited a team in the relegation places last season, before sparking a turnaround that led to Europa League qualification. Now, the ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder was to design the side in his own image and sought the services of presence to lead the line.

Boniface opened his account for the club with a brace in the club’s second league fixture of the campaign, scoring twice as Borussia Monchengladbach were beaten 3-0 at Borussia-Park. Another brace followed as Darmstadt were routed 5-1 to maintain a perfect three from three start to the Bundesliga campaign.

The 22-year-old was named as the Bundesliga Rookie of the Month for August, before retaining the accolade in September and October as his stunning start continued at the BayArena. Boniface has now scored seven league goals, adding four more in the DFB-Pokal and Europa League, to take his total to 11 in 15 appearances in all competitions. The Nigerian has also weighed in with six assists, averaging a goal involvement every 74.2 minutes of action.

22-year-old Victor Boniface joined Bayer Leverkusen from Union Saint-Gilloise for €20.5 million in July 🇳🇬

He has 11 goals and six assists in 16 games in all competitions this season, and he has won three consecutive Bundesliga Rookie of the Month awards 🏆

Baller 🔥 pic.twitter.com/gs7mmD3sGX

— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 14, 2023

The record-breaking goal returns of Harry Kane and Serhou Guirassy have taken much of the headlines in the Bundesliga this season, but Boniface’s brilliance has transformed Leverkusen. Alonso’s side have dropped points in just one game – a 2-2 draw with Bayern – in 11 fixtures this season, opening up a two-point advantage over the 11-in-a-row defending champions. Leverkusen, famously, have never been crowned champions in Germany, but there is real optimism around this side and Boniface has been key to that.

No player in Europe’s top five leagues has taken more shots (57) or averaged more shots per 90 (5.47) than Boniface, who tops the Bundesliga for non-penalty xG (8.9). Though goals have been his chief currency this season, there’s more to his game than sharp instincts around the area.

Only Xavi Simons (7) and Leroy Sane (6) have more assists in the Bundesliga this season, while the Nigerian is among the division’s leaders for drive in possession. He ranks ninth for progressive carries, fifth for carries into the penalty box, and second for both successful take-ons and dribbles per game. His blend of raw power, sharp-shooting and ability to beat players has made for a potent cocktail.

Though the sample size is small, with Boniface just three-and-a-half months into his first season in a top-five league, the numbers behind his work indicate the levels he is reaching right now. Leverkusen’s leading scorer ranks in the 99th percentile of centre-forwards in Europe’s big leagues for non-penalty xG, shots, assists and successful take-ons per 90 minutes, while he is also in the elite bracket (90th percentile or higher) for attacking penalty area touches, progressive passes received, progressive carries, non-penalty goals and shot-creating actions.

Defensively, his game requires work to reach the next level. An average of 1.72 aerials won per game is poor for a player of Boniface’s 6ft 3in stature, and ranks him only in the 44th percentile. Likewise, a return of 0.53 tackles per game demonstrate the improvements that can be made to Boniface’s pressing work. For contrast, Liverpool’s Cody Gakpo is the leader in Europe’s big five leagues with 1.58 tackles per game on average.

Bonfiace will not turn 23 until next month, so time is on his side to step up another level. The ease at which the forward has climbed the ladder from Norway, to Belgium, and then Germany, is evidence in his capabilities to keep ascending.

He made his international debut for Nigeria in September and while still to open his account for the Super Eagles in three caps, he forms part of an impressive collection of Nigerian centre-forwards who will spearhead the nation’s assault on the Africa Cup of Nations in the new year.

It’s been a decade since Nigeria’s last continental win, but a potential partnership of Boniface and Napoli superstar Victor Osimhen will put José Peseiro’s side in contention in the Ivory Coast in January.

For Leverkusen, the German league leaders face the blow of losing Boniface for an extended period. The Bundesliga’s winter break ends on January 12, the day before AFCON gets underway.

Should Die Schwarzroten remain in the title conversation at the turn of the new year, Alonso will need to find a way to combat Boniface’s absence, a difficult task given his influence so far this season.

Read – Noughties Nines: Miroslav Klose – World Cup icon

See also – Every Premier League club’s fastest player in 2023/24

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