Newly-promoted Nottingham Forest made a bold statement of intent in its first international move of the summer transfer market, shelling out a club-record £17.5M to bring in Taiwo Awoniyi. The Nigerian striker joins from the Bundesliga’s Union Berlin on a five-year contract.
Although Awoniyi was officially a Liverpool player from 2015 to 2021, many fans of the English Premier League have probably never heard of him. Let’s fix that.
Born 31 August 1997 in Ilorin, Nigeria, Awoniyi began playing football at the Unicorn Soccer Academy, He was later invited to Nigeria’s Imperial Soccer Academy after being voted Most Valuable Player at a Coca Cola tournament in London at the age of thirteen.
He scored four goals in Nigeria’s victorious 2013 U17 World Cup campaign and has since gone on to play for his country at every level, most recently in AFCON 2021 and the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
He signed his first professional contract in 2015, joining Liverpool at age 18. But due at least in part to issues securing a work permit, he never featured for the senior team, spending most of his time on loan outside England. He served tours of duty at FSV Frankfurt, NEC Nijmegen, Gent, and Mainz 05, as well as two stints at Mouscron.
Finally, a successful loan to Union Berlin during the 2020-21 season led to a permanent signing last summer. Awoniyi registered twenty goals plus five assists in 43 games across all competitions last season. Numbers like that turn heads, and top-tier clubs in both Germany and England made inquiries. But in the end, the Nigerian chose Forest:
It has always been my dream to play in the Premier League. Having spoken to [Forest boss] Steve Cooper about our ambitions and looking at Forest, with its great history, it’s a club that I want to be part of.
Liverpool negotiated a 10% sell-on clause into Awoniyi’s Union Berlin contract, so ‘Pool will now realize a tidy £1.75M windfall from his sale to Nottingham Forest.
Style of Play
A solidly-built and athletic six-footer, Awoniyi is a prototypical #9 who is adept at hold-up play as well as running behind the defense to receive long balls and through balls. Strong, quick, and physical, he excels at splitting central defenders while being difficult to bully off the ball. His energy, work rate, and physicality have led to comparisons to Michail Antonio and Divock Origi.
As you can see from this 2021-22 shot map courtesy of The Athletic, virtually all of his attempts on goal occurred centrally and within the box.
Awoniyi’s shot map looks like this because Union Berlin’s strategy often relied on counterattacking from a low block, with wing-backs supplying service to Awoniyi from the flanks, or with midfield playmakers sending him through on goal. But he is more than just a target man; he is also very capable with the ball at his feet. Berlin often launched its counterattacks by feeding the ball to Awoniyi and then relying on him to either dribble forward in transition, or to open space off the ball by holding up and drawing defenders in.
But at the end of the day, strikers earn their coin by putting the ball into the net, so how good is Awoniyi at doing that? Pretty good, it turns out. Comfortable with his head and both feet, he has a calm composure in front of goal, knowing when to choose placement over power. Here’s a graphic from the Football in the Whip YouTube channel that shows how his stats stack up against the average from the top 5 leagues.
Not reflected in the table is his npxG/90, which was 0.51 last season, ranking him in the 88th percentile across the top 5 leagues.
But for those of us who aren’t stats geeks, here is a simpler expression of his goal-scoring acumen: He ranked sixth in the Bundesliga for goals last season. The names ahead of him? Robert Lewandowski, Patrik Schick, Erling Haaland, Christopher Nkunku, and Anthony Modeste. If you weren’t familiar with Taiwo Awoniyi, then perhaps you’ve heard of some of those guys?
For your viewing pleasure, below is a sampling of the capabilities he’ll bring to Nottingham’s City Grounds.
Where Will Awoniyi Fit In At Nottingham Forest?
Forest’s offense was third-best in the Championship last season, finishing just one goal shy of second-best Bournemouth. With that kind of goal-scoring capability, why are they writing a big check for a new striker? Because the Premier League is a different animal than the Championship.
Let’s use last season’s promoted teams as examples. Watford finished third in the Championship in 2021, scoring 63 goals over 46 games for a goals-per-game average of 1.37. Yet in the Prem the following season they scored only 34 goals over 38 games, for a per-game average of 0.89.
Brentford finished runner-up in England’s second tier in 2021, but its offense was tops in the league, scoring 79 goals to average 1.72 per game. In the EPL last season that average fell to 1.26.
Finally, Norwich, who won the Championship in 2021 with the league’s second-best goal tally, averaged 1.63 goals per game that season. Yet in the Premier League campaign that followed they averaged just 0.66.
The take-away? Once promoted to the Prem, it’s not unusual for even the Championship’s best teams and most potent offenses to see their rates of goal production drop off by at least 0.5 goals per game. When you apply that math to Forest’s 2020-21 Championship campaign, the projection for this season’s EPL campaign comes out to 41.8 goals. Only four of twenty EPL teams scored fewer than 42 goals in 2021-22, and all three of the teams who were relegated were in that group.
The obvious hope, then, is that adding Awoniyi can supercharge Forest’s attack, bump up the team’s goal production, and help them avoid an immediate return to the Championship. Worryingly though, the list of players who couldn’t replicate their Bundesliga success in the Prem is relatively long. Wout Weghorst, Jadon Sancho, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz, and Sebastian Haller are merely some of the most recent examples of the so-called “Bundesliga tax” phenomenon.
It will help that Awoniyi shouldn’t have problems acclimating to his new setup. Like Berlin, Forest allows the opposition to dominate possession and then breaks on the counter, so Cooper’s tactics should seem familiar to the Nigerian. Add in the benefit of a full preseason to bed-in, and Awoniyi should feel quite comfortable with his role at Forest by the time opening weekend rolls around.
And when opening weekend rolls around, I think he’ll be leading the line in Cooper’s starting XI. Lewis Grabban has been Forest’s main striker and is club captain. But he is 34 years old and coming off ankle and hamstring injuries that blighted the second half of his season. He is also out of contract. Cooper would like to find a way to keep Grabban in the fold, but given the player’s age and recent injury history, one imagines that the plan would be to use him primarily for depth and as a second-half impact sub.
Aston Villa loanee Keinan Davis joined in January and successfully filled the gap created by Grabban’s injury absence, scoring five goals in 15 appearances. But although Forest was initially interested in a permanent signing, they deemed Villa’s valuation of the 24 year-old (rumored to be £15M) to be too rich. Now that Forest has signed Awoniyi, its interest in a permanent signing of Davis has cooled, and the Villan is expected to report back to Bodymoor Heath to begin preseason training with Steven Gerrard within the next week or two.
Finally, Awoniyi’s transfer fee smashed the club’s previous record by 50%. The Foresters did not pay that kind of money only to let their most expensive asset watch games from the bench. Bottom line: Awoniyi is going to be the guy. And that’s a role he is accustomed to: Nearly a third of Union Berlin’s goals were his.
Whether Awoniyi succeeds at Forest will depend to a large extent on how he gels with his new teammates. He enjoyed his best form last year when partnered with Max Kruse. Awoniyi scored nine league goals before Kruse returned to parent club Wolfsburg in January, but only six afterwards. If the Nigerian can develop similar chemistry with his Forest strike partner Brennan Johnson, then I would expect maybe eight or ten goals from him this season, plus a handful of assists.
I’d be more sanguine about Awoniyi’s chances of hitting a double-digit goal tally if he were an undisputed first-choice penalty-taker, but he is not. Also sobering is the fact that in the entire history of the Premier League, only 10 players have scored more than 15 goals for a newly-promoted side. That just shows you how challenging Awoniyi’s job is going to be in the Prem this season.
Of course, Awoniyi’s value as a fantasy asset will be determined not just by production, but also by price. The biggest-name forwards on last season’s promoted sides entered FPL at the following price points:
- Emmanuel Dennis, £5.0
- Joshua King, £5.5
- Teemu Pukki, £6.0
- Ivan Toney, £6.5
Toney had just set the single-season Championship goal-scoring record, which probably helps explain why his FPL entry price was the most expensive. I therefore anticipate that Awoniyi will enter at a maximum of £6.0. If he can muster production similar to Pukki’s (11 goals), Toney’s (12 goals), or Dennis’s (10 goals), then he’d make a solid third forward at that price: Pukki finished as the #3 forward in FPL for a price of £6.1, Toney was #5 at £6.9, and Dennis finished #6 for £5.8.
Nevertheless, the smart play is probably to hold off on bringing him into your fantasy squad. NFO faces West Ham, Tottenham, and Man City in the first five game-weeks. Choosing a known quantity with better early fixtures as your third forward (Neal Maupay at £6.2 looks pretty good) may therefore be a more prudent option than rolling the dice on an unproven asset facing some tough matchups.
By the time Forest’s fixtures take a more favorable turn after the City match in GW-5, Awoniyi will have put some EPL performances into the books, and we’ll have a better idea of whether his talent justifies his price.
I’d take the same tack in Fantrax GW-1, where he’ll enter at the default $7. After that, barring a shock GW-1 hattrick or an even less likely Fantrax bug-fix, his price will likely sink to the league minimum, so he might become interesting as soon as his fixture list turns.
So at the end of the day Awoniyi is yet another EPL newbie who for now warrants only watchful waiting. But the player himself is determined not to disappoint:
“Every striker wants to score goals, but I’m ready to work for the team, to fight for every ball, to win every challenge, that’s my style and that’s what I’m here for.”
Will Taiwo Awoniyi score 10 or more goals this season?
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What do you think of Nottingham Forest and Taiwo Awoniyi? Is he on your watch list?