COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
“[William Troost-]Ekong is a player with an important physical structure, skilled in the air both defensively and offensively. We are talking about an aggressive central defender…”
One might say that football has gotten a kick out of jerking Troost-Ekong around. These comments, by Technical Director Daniele Prade while announcing that the Nigeria international had signed on for Serie A side Udinese for four years late in the transfer window.
Yet it was barely three years ago that Sunday Oliseh, then coach of the Super Eagles, reportedly told Ekong he lacked the physicality to hack it at the top level.
He failed to make the cut at senior level with Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, and only made two appearances for modest Dutch outfit FC Groningen in two years on their books. After a strong World Cup showing, he will now grace the same stadium as some of the finest names in football, the likes of Zico, Dino Zoff, Oliver Biehoff and Antonio Di Natale.
If the mixed signals give him any whiplash, he does not show it.
Instead, he has displayed an admirable ability to use the setbacks, verbal and otherwise, as fuel. He has admitted that the barb from Oliseh “spurred him on”, and insists his body of work with the national team has vindicated him.
That may be so, but his transfer to Italy has certainly validated him as a leading defender in his own right. While he achieved something close to cult status in Turkey at Bursaspor, for a player whose long-stated ambition is to return to the Premier League, becoming a force in a major European league was imperative.
As if to illustrate the esteem in which he is held, he was thrown straight into the fray on the opening weekend of the season as Udinese made their Serie A bow against Parma as Stadio Ennio Tardini. Then again, perhaps that had more to do with the fact that, unlike the other options, he had some match rhythm coming in.
As far as baptisms go, it was quite a fiery one. Ekong struggled significantly with the movement of Parma’s Roberto Inglese, who dragged him and central defensive partner Bram Nuytinck all over the park, and capped off his display with a well-taken goal.
Of course, there is not a lot that can be read into the game, with Ekong having only had a training session or two with his new teammates beforehand. More than any other department, defence relies a lot on communication and understanding, and he will no doubt improve with time and familiarity.
Indeed, since that opening game, the defender has featured a further four times, conceding just two goals and keeping two clean sheets. To date, Udinese have the joint-second best defensive record in the division, and Troost-Ekong is averaging seven clearances per game – putting him in the top 10 for the division.
He will surely be finding that scrutiny comes much quicker with a bigger stage. His ill-advised charge out from defence in the lead up to Inglese’s opener on his debut exposed his backline, and he can sometimes display a lack of authority inside his area. On one occasion against Parma, he lost the flight of the ball completely following his man, allowing Antonio Di Gaudio to steal in behind him and head over.
His early performances highlight the fact that, for all he has achieved in a short time, he is by no means the finished article.
It is imperative he continue to grow and develop, and perhaps the more contemplative pace of Serie A affords him the perfect classroom—he described it to Voetbalzone as being “much more about defending than elsewhere”.
Still only 25, there is plenty of time for that Premier League dream to come true, and it is instructive that, though he admitted interest from other clubs, he opted for Udinese, a club owned by the Pozzo family. The Pozzos, who also own Watford, have a track record of aggressive self-pollination, and perhaps that was an important factor in his decision.
For any of that to matter though, Ekong will first have to establish himself in Italy. Not since the colourful Taribo West has Serie A seen a dominant Nigerian centre-back. If the Haarlem-born defender comes to be spoken of in the same breath, he will have done his chances no harm.