MARTIN BAKER (@Martinb1892) takes another look at one that got away. Or did he?
After a week in which the original ‘first choice’ leader of our revolution, Unai Emery, faced off against Eddie Howe, we hear of another ‘one that got away’ hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons. Hugo Ekitike was the 19-year old hot prospect pursued in January 2022 and again (practically jilting us at the altar) in the summer. At the last minute, this enfant terrible (that’s French for impetuous little shit) had a change of heart, his agent muttering about a lack of belief in ‘the long-term project’. He opted for a season-long loan to PSG from fellow Ligue 1 side Reims. The Paris club have an obligation to buy but rumours are abound that PSG are preparing to immediately sell him after just ten starts in all competitions this season.
Should Newcastle rekindle their interest? Would fans forgive him for his prior public rejection? Is it worth overlooking his potential to be ‘le trouble’ for a club that has a chequered past with French signings? Here is this nerd’s take on how Huffy Hugo stacks up against the rest. I’ve explored the five key factors which scouts and analysts tend to survey. Listen up Dan Ashworth.
Confidence and composure are vital for a forward. Gambles on players out of form rarely pay off. Coutinho, Alli, Lingard and Van Der Beek were lucky escapes for us. Assuming they were under serious consideration to begin with. Ekitike is currently shit out of luck. Many will mutter ‘I told you so’ as he signed for the PSG giants. You have to be pretty cocksure to believe you are good enough at 20 years of age to compete with Neymar, Messi and Mbappe.
In eight league starts for PSG and the odd late Champions’ League cameo his average match rating is 5.93. A local journalist rated his cameo against Benfica last October as, “6, replaced Serabia. Had average game”. Against Bayern when PSG were dumped out of the Champions League he achieved: “N/A – last roll of the dice late in the game”. Hugo’s got the hump. Removing everything from his Instagram bio last week and replacing it with “Sub 44” – infuriating French fans who believe it’s a dig at his lack of game time. He and Anthony Gordon would have fun together in Mad Dog Tindall’s naughty boys’ sand pit.
Yet he is still very young (20), green as a cucumber and being drip-fed game time. He made his debut from the bench in a 5-0 win over mid-table Clermont last August. In October he made his first start. As PSG’s stars began to pack their passports for Qatar he finally bagged his first goal in a 5-0 drubbing of struggling Auxerre, but then badly fluffed his lines when through on goal later in the same game.
Wor Eddie would have loved his goal against Auxerre. Seizing on hesitation by an Auxerre defender (reminiscent of Murphy’s pounce on West Ham’s Aguerd) and calmly sliding the ball past the advancing ‘keeper. Mbappe patronisingly embracing him and offering a thumbs up to the gantry. Happy Hugo.
This lad is ideally suited to a forward press. Across his time at Reims and PSG in the last 12 months he is in the top 2% of all European forwards for interceptions, top 13% for tackles and top 14% for blocks. In one particular game for Reims against Montpellier he was praised by his coach for his unselfishness. At Reims his overall passing accuracy (71%) put him in the top 3% of forwards. Ahead of what Kane, Watkins, Wilson and Osimhen are achieving this season in different leagues. Despite limited game time he is achieving an impressive 82% at PSG which is the same as a certain Jude Bellingham and far better than Ivan Toney (58%). All of this explains why his assists (1 in every 3 for PSG, 1 in 5 for Reims) are a strong point. This lad will provide for his fellow strikers and work his socks off.
Or as we’ve otherwise heard it expressed, the ‘no dickheads’ test. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the pioneers of background checking. Taking personal ownership of this task. I suspect Howe is no different. Can I help him? Can I work with him? Will the team respect and appreciate him and vice versa? Who else is in his head apart from me?
Huffy Hugo has few toys left in his pram. Yet, we know little of his upbringing other than that he has a Cameroonian mother and French father. Perhaps we should take heart from (or at least forgive him for) his previous dismissal of our interest. The source of those comments was – after all – his agent who will have raked in a hefty fee from PSG and tea at Messi’s house, while his client got some time in the Champions League before his 21st birthday, still living in the city his family calls home.
4) Skills & Physiology
For younger players it’s a question of how a player may grow and develop physically. For strikers, statistics back up what the scout’s naked eye will see around control, positioning, awareness, dribbling, shooting and other attributes.
Physically, Ekitike is tall (6ft 2in) and lean, but with broad shoulders that suggest he’d quickly benefit from the Howe school of super fitness. Oscar Garcia, his coach at Reims attests, “We saw that he has a lot of the qualities required to become a top striker. Technically he is so good. He is fast. He has to develop a little bit more physically”.
His dribbling stats are nowhere close to Vinicius Junior or even ASM, but his runs in the final third lead to shooting opportunities more than most other strikers. He’ll run at and terrify defenders but his head stays raised. The core skill he has yet to really show (owing to lack of opportunity) is his finishing. His shots on target percentage for Reims rival those achieved by Isak and Watkins, but he is still hesitant in front of goal. For both Reims and PSG so far he averages just above one shot on target per game but around 50% of his attempts make the ‘keeper work, which is the aim of the game. For Reims he buried pretty much the same proportion of chances as Europe’s best and well ahead of what Toney, Wilson, Watkins and even the highly fancied Osimhen muster. Howe and his team again could coach and encourage him to have a pop more whilst celebrating his unselfishness, unrelenting pressing and passing accuracy in the final third.
So – “Snog, Marry, Avoid”?
I’ve long had a theory that the French don’t settle well on Tyneside. Myth or fact? In this version of “Snog, Marry, Avoid” (let’s call it “drager, se marier, merde” – I have a GCSE in French, mange tout!) let’s have a look at the numerous French imports to grace and disgrace the St. James’ Park turf:-
Se Marier (we’d happily have them round to our mam’s): Cabaye, Robert, Ginola, Saha, Remy, ASM, Sibierski (if only for our 2007 UEFA run)
Drager (jury’s out but we enjoyed the odd moment whilst pissed): Gouffran, Sissoko, Lejeune, Bernard, Ben Arfa, Distin, Domi, Charvet, Goma, Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa
Merde (don’t call us, we’ll call you): Thauvin, Cabella, Amalfitano, Marveaux, Obertan, Boumsong, Pancrate, Ngo Baheng, Guivarc’h, Dumas, Perez (Lionel), Terrier
So, all in all, a mixed bag. Is Ekitike worth a punt? I’d say yes. Newcastle were right to push for his signature. He is showing signs of youthful petulance but with patience, belief and perseverance what he lacks in humility at a young age can be forgiven if his potential can be realised. Worth another pop? Oui!