- Nationality: Nigerian
- Age: 22
- Date of birth: 01/01/1998
- Current Club: FC Midtjylland
- Career: FC Midtjylland
- Position: Centre Midfield
- Preferred foot: Right
Onyeka turned 22 at the start of this year, joining the Midtjylland youth set up from Nigeria at the start of 2016. He has since made over 50 appearances for the Danish side having made his debut in 2017, scoring 11 goals for ‘the Wolves’ in that time. His current contract runs until 2024 and he has been a regular fixture in the starting eleven the past two seasons.
He has so far this season made 27 appearances, racking up over 2100 minutes; almost doubling his playing time from last season, and is MIdtjylland’s fifth most used player this season. With Midtjylland clear at the top of the league he looks set to add a Superliga winners medal to the Danish Cup that he won last season. Since the return of Danish football, Midtjylland have won four of their seven fixtures and had won 11/12 before the season was halted.
For the majority of the season Midtjylland have played a 4-2-3-1 formation, sometimes switching to a 4-3-3. Onyeka is left with similar roles in both formations, he plays as one of the holding midfielders but has some license to get forward and attack.
Out of Possession
Onyeka’s off the ball presence is really where his game shines. At 6 feet tall the Nigerian is well built and is very strong. His aggressive pressing style is what really sets him apart from other players. The Nigerian is something of a ball winning machine and is very important for Midtjylland to be able to launch counter attacks. As per fbref.com and StatsBomb, Onyeka has won the second most tackles in the league this season as well as having committed and drawn the second most fouls. This really typifies Onyeka’s influence on the defensive end and his ability to win the ball back for his team. He averages almost 12 recoveries per game (Wyscout) and is key to his team’s ability to win the ball high up the pitch with 50% of those recoveries in the opposition half
He possess impressive pace and is able to cover ground quickly, his lateral movement is particularly impressive as he is able to cover the width of the pitch and protect his back four very well. Combining this with his strength and aggression in tackles makes him extremely difficult for attackers to hold off and resist, he is a very physical player and uses his physicality to his advantage. He is not afraid of getting stuck into challenges and makes sure he competes in all of them, one area in which he is perhaps lacking is aerially, winning only 42% of his aerial duels. If he could become more dominant in the air he would be a very difficult player to bypass in defence.
Away from his raw physical attributes, Onyeka also demonstrates good intelligence in off the ball situations. He is seemingly omnipresent across the pitch at times. He always seems to be in position intercept any passes coming through the midfield as well as picking up a lot of loose balls after tackles and aerial duels, as mentioned before his ball recovery numbers are high and he is able to make an impressive 5.7 interceptions per 90 minutes. Despite his tenacious, aggressive pressing style, Onyeka is able to pick the right times to press and is effective not only pressing players on his own to win the ball back but he presses well as part of a unit or in combination with other players close to him and often forces players into mistakes or areas they struggle to play in without directly winning the ball back himself.
Despite Midtjylland being runaway leaders in the Superliga, it can be seen here that they only average 52% possession which isn’t necessarily the norm for league leaders across Europe, in fact Midtjylland have held a minority share of possession in 9 league games this season. These occasions have helped highlight his importance to Midtjylland’s defensive phases of play. He has played alongside a few different midfield partners but he is a key part of making the midfield so difficult to play through and break down. His positioning and maintenance of the midfield shape is a big reason why Midtjlland have the meanest defence in the league.
If you had to be hyper critical of Onyeka’s off the ball work it could be said that he is sometimes a bit reliant on his athleticism. He knows that he has the pace and strength to recover quickly so he isn’t necessarily always in the best positions during transitions when the ball isn’t in close proximity. But his positioning is by no means poor and it doesn’t tend to detract from his defensive performance.
These comparisons to some of the Premier League’s between defensive midfielders show how much defensive work that Onyeka gets through while he’s on the pitch, as well as the quality of his defensive work and his ability in the tackle in the highlighted areas. He shows up well on these metrics which further highlights his ability on the defensive side of the ball. Onyeka’s performances in the Superliga are adjusted to the Premier League standard by smarterscout’s algorithm.
As previously mentioned, Midtjylland are a team that are comfortable to play the game with less of the ball and when they win the ball back they are quick to transition into a fast counter attack. This means that they often play quite direct and midfielders see less of the ball than you might expect. That being said, there are occasions when Onyeka finds himself content to stand behind opposition players that are pressing his defence rather than making options for them. He sometimes seems reluctant to receive the ball from time to time. When receiving the ball he seems very aware of what is around him most of the time, as he often comes into deeper positions to receive the ball from his defenders and goalkeeper. He does well to get on the half turn to give himself as many options as possible and it seems important to note that his teammates trust him on the ball even if he doesn’t always make himself available.
Onyeka is however confident on the ball, he knows he has the ability to dribble past players helped by his physical attributes and he attempts 2.5 dribbles per 90 from his deeper midfield position this season. Onyeka has the ability to drive his team forward on the counter attack too.
In this clip Onyeka not only shows his pace to get away from the first defender into space but he also shows good ability in a different 1v1 situation. He decelerates well before a quick body movement creates space for him to get a shot away. Despite showing ability to threaten in forward areas on the ball, Onyeka doesn’t tend to be as involved on the ball in and around the box usually.
When it comes to passing, Onyeka seems to know his limits at the moment and tends to play shorter, simpler passes to his fellow midfielders to keep the ball moving and the move progressing rather than looking to play more forward or incisive passes himself. He averages around 3.8 successful passes into the final third per 90, only attempts 0.5 through balls and 1.8 long balls each game both of which are only accurate around 50% of the time. The passes Onyeka does play are generally accurate and he tends to move the ball on quickly with one or two touch passes where he can. Playing within his means is no bad thing as he is able to keep possession for his team and affect the game off the ball instead. If anything this highlights Onyeka’s awareness of his game and he recognises how he can be most useful to his team.
Onyeka’s touch map shows that most of his touches and passes come from central areas of the pitch and very few in either box. Onyeka is able to influence the game most from central areas, by staying close to the middle of the pitch is able to make sure he is something off a reference point for the defensive shape if the ball is lost, and he is also in a position to initiate the press as soon as possible.
When Onyeka is involved in attacking areas he isn’t afraid to try his luck and take a shot from range. He has taken few shots from inside the area this season and doesn’t tend to get high quality shot opportunities from open play. The few chances he does get in and around the box he struggles to finish; finishing doesn’t appear to be one of Onyeka’s strength’s at this point in his career.
Overall, Onyeka’s game tends towards off the ball defensive duties much more than it does to being an on the ball midfielder. Onyeka is the type of midfielder who’s work can go somewhat unnoticed because of how simple he makes it look. ‘Working smarter not harder’ can often describe how Onyeka plays his game, his positional play allows him to sweep up loose balls and step into to stop the opposition attacking, without appearing to exert too much effort. He has the physical attributes to complement his aggressive pressing style perfectly, his pace and strength allows him to quickly put attackers under pressure and harry them until they make a mistake or he can win the ball back. His long legs allow him to cut out passes easily.
His game on the ball could do with some work, he displays some attributes that make him a threat on the ball but he isn’t always keen to be involved in possession, whether that is a confidence issue or not would need to be explored. If Onyeka were to develop his passing range more and be able to pass more creatively from midfield he would be a huge threat on the offensive side of the ball.
With the importance of intense high pressing in the modern game, Onyeka’s skill set fits perfectly and he would be a good addition to any team looking to win the ball back quickly and high up the pitch. On the flip side, Onyeka’s passing game might sometimes make it difficult for him to break an opposition’s press against higher quality opposition so he would need to be paired with midfielders that would be able to regularly make angles for shorter passes for him or who themselves could play through a press with more regularity. He probably wouldn’t struggle to lend his play style to any of the top leagues but he would thrive in leagues with high intensity.
At 22 years old, there is no rush for him to move on and his development in Denmark is going well. He is set to increase his playing minutes again this season, continuing to get big minutes for Midtjylland who will also be playing in the Champions League again next season. A move to a team that presses often and well might suit him, so teams such as Southampton or Leicester might take an interest in a player like Onyeka.
With a limited presence on the ball Onyeka might struggle to establish himself in a top European league but he has demonstrated potential to improve in those areas and he is very good off the ball and defensively. So although a Premier League could have to wait, a move to the Netherlands or France could set him up well before going to England or Germany and could be an effective destroyer in the right system.
Rating – A2