Luca Koleosho is used to being in demand.
The 19-year-old was coveted by clubs across Europe this summer after deciding to leave Espanyol in Spain, eventually joining Premier League newcomers Burnley.
And internationally, too, there is a scramble for his services: he may have spent his summer representing Italy Under-20s, but the United States, Canada and Nigeria have not given up hope of persuading him to commit to them. He is qualified to play for all of them and all four will be studying his progress in England with interest.
It is a startling rise for a player who had just six senior appearances to his name before this season, yet the excitement around him does not look overhyped. This is why Koleosho is a wanted man.
When Luca Koleosho’s name was put forward by Burnley’s recruitment department as a summer target, even dealmakers within the club were scurrying to Google to find out just who they were looking at.
Burnley were hardly short of wingers (seven arrived at Turf Moor this summer) and given his age and experience, it was unclear what his role would be.
Vincent Kompany, however, was very sure. During Zoom conversations with Koleosho, the Belgian talked in detail about how he viewed the youngster’s short- and long-term development. His message was clear, no matter a player’s age, those who impress in training will be rewarded with starts.
Burnley faced stiff competition from clubs in Germany, France and Italy, but the Premier League was a significant factor for Koleosho, as was the fact other clubs were suggesting being eased into the first team would be a slower process. Kompany is also a manager players want to play for. “Vincent Kompany was a crucial factor,” says CAA Stellar executive chairman David Manasseh, who oversaw the deal.
Koleosho has had to settle into a new country on his own, but he has enjoyed integrating into Burnley’s dressing room and has adapted to Kompany’s high standards and demanding sessions.
What makes his start to the season even more impressive is how busy his summer has been. He won the Under-19 European Championship with Italy, a tournament that did not finish until the middle of July.
After a one-week break, he was on a plane to Portugal to undergo medical tests and sign for Burnley and duly did enough in pre-season to earn a start in the season opener against Manchester City.
In attendance that evening were his parents, who only found out their son was starting through people texting them. Luca had kept it quiet.
“When we saw him come out I just started crying,” his mother Melissa tells The Athletic. “Seeing your child live his dream… I was just so proud and happy for him. Then I got nervous and stressed because I had no control over it.
“The advice we always give him every day is (to) have fun out there, play fast, play hard and enjoy every moment. That’s what he has done all his life.”
Born in Connecticut, Koleosho had a ball at his feet from the moment he could walk. The house and garden were so strewn with them that they became an obstacle course for his mother to navigate.
Melissa was a USL W-League player and passed a love for the sport to her son. His talent meant he quickly outgrew his local team, so he joined Manhattan Kickers, a youth soccer school in New York City for children aged 5-12.
It required a three-hour round trip to drive to multiple sessions throughout the week and while Melissa was uncertain, Luca was determined that this was what he wanted. That competitive streak has always been evident, even at school, when he was determined to be the first to finish a test, regardless of the result.
Speed may not necessarily have helped there, but on the pitch, it marked him out as special. It was evident in him registering his first Premier League assist in the 5-2 defeat to Tottenham.
After Burnley worked the ball from right to left, Connor Roberts played a pass in behind Pedro Porro for Koleosho.
The winger was too quick for Porro and drove to the byline…
… before pulling the ball back for Lyle Foster to score.
According to data from fbref.com ahead of the weekend’s fixtures, of players who have clocked 100 minutes or more this season, Koleosho is averaging the most take-on attempts per 90 minutes – 8.64. It is a small sample size but also a clear indication of his intent.
He is direct and dynamic and while the end product is not always executed with precision, that should improve with time.
In this example against Tottenham, Koleosho received a pass and his body shape meant Porro was unsure which way he would dribble.
He ended up drifting inside and skipping past the challenge of Pape Matar Sarr to open up space centrally.
He continued his dribble as his lack of support limited his passing options and he was stopped.
Koleosho can go on the outside, too, on his weaker left foot. He used his pace to win this race against Porro…
… before using his quick feet to chop back inside.
His pass to Zeki Amdouni lacked accuracy and his team-mate was unable to control the ball, so the opportunity was lost.
Despite the small sample size available, Koleosho has also shown why he can be an asset to Kompany out of possession. According to Opta, of all players who have played a minimum of 100 minutes, before the international break, Koleosho has averaged the most possession regains in the final third – 2.76 per 90 minutes.
He was first to a loose ball in the final third against Aston Villa…
… before turning away from two closing defenders…
… and laying the ball off to Amdouni, who saw his shot blocked.
This, according to Melissa, is nothing new. “What’s amazing about watching him play right now is that it is how we’ve always seen him play,” she says. “It’s very natural and his personality is coming out on the pitch.”
There is more to his game. His former coach at Kickers, Evan Rosenthal, did not want his pace to become too dominant in his game. His decision-making needed work and sometimes he was guilty of believing the best option for the team was to try to do it all on his own.
“He just picked up elements of the game way faster than other kids,” Rosenthal told The Athletic in 2022. “It is a tough dynamic when you have a really good player because they feel they are the best option for the team when that’s not always the case. So, he was a hard one to manage.”
Key to making him a more complete player was futsal, a small-sided game usually played indoors and on smaller pitches.
Koleosho became more of a team player. He combined with team-mates more often, improved his movement off the ball, worked on his weaker left foot and developed his passing range.
At Kickers, Koleosho’s team travelled to Barcelona twice because one of the coaches was from there. After his second trip, the youngster told his parents he wanted to continue his career in Spain. He felt the style of play, featuring short, sharp passing combinations that resembled futsal, would help him develop into the player he wanted to be.
For a footballer, it was a reasonable suggestion, but slightly less so for a 10-year-old. Yet his mind was made up, so he turned down the easier stepping stone of a place in the New York Red Bulls academy and instead joined Catalonia-based third-division side CF Reus, who had tracked him during tournaments he played in during the Spain trips.
Moving to Spain – aged 11 – meant making sacrifices. Family and friends were far away and Melissa would get phone calls from her son in tears. The option to come home was always on the table, but Koleosho’s determination to succeed meant it stayed there.
“It was a huge sacrifice for all of us,” says Melissa. ”Being away from him and having to parent him from overseas was very difficult, but it has proven to be worth it.
“Luca is very motivated and his goal has always been that he wants to be the best player and that doesn’t come without struggle. He missed his friends and family and he’s learning a different language, but in his head, he was improving and that drove him.”
Koleosho’s development continued but, in 2019, CF Reus were expelled from the Segunda Division B due to the non-payment of player salaries and ultimately liquidated the following year.
It could have left the youngster in limbo, but Espanyol had been tracking his progress and brought him into their academy at 15. When he turned 16 he became a regular in the under-18s and earned his first professional contract, a three-year deal, in 2021.
Espanyol wanted to be patient with his development, but his performances during the 2021-22 season for the under-19 and reserve teams made him difficult to ignore. His reward was a place in the first team matchday squad on the final day of the season.
Fast forward a year and Koleosho was ready to make another big move. The key was finding the right fit and crucial to that was a coach who believed in young players and was willing to allow them to develop through playing time. His parents offered their son advice, but his decision to join Burnley was his alone.
Key to that was Kompany. “When I see what Vincent does, I wish I was still playing,” Melissa says. “He’s the type of coach you want. He brings so much to the table; exciting, young, smart and he is someone you can trust. I told Luca to absorb as much as he can from the whole coaching staff and be a sponge. Vincent is the right fit for him.”
It has taken longer to adapt to the weather, but his parents have helped him settle. His father, Olukayode, is currently in England with him and Melissa will be flying over at the start of October.
“He’s loving it,” says Melissa. “As long as Luca is playing football he can adjust to any environment. He’s getting along with his team-mates and as long as he’s playing and feeling like he’s developing and being challenged, then he’s driven to keep going along this path.”
With his club situation settled, that just leaves his international prospects. Melissa is Italian-Canadian and his father Nigerian-American, so he can represent all four nations and all are tracking his progress.
During the recent international break, he represented Italy Under-20s. He has enjoyed representing the country but other options have not been ruled out. He turned out for the United States at under-15 level and was called up to the Canada Under-20 squad in 2020.
Canada’s assistant coach Eric Tenllado is a former Espanyol coach and their recruitment attempts were strong. Despite the under-20 camp being cancelled due to Covid-19, they continued to track him and named him in the senior squad for the June 2022 internationals against Iran and Panama. Both were cancelled, so he remained uncapped. The camp did allow him to assess the setup and meet manager John Herdman and the squad.
Luca Koleosho’s Canada role could progress like his career has: quickly
The benefit of representing a European team is a player usually returns earlier to clubs than CONCACAF nations, such as Canada and the United States. That can impact a manager’s selection because European players will have had a handful of training sessions and been more involved in preparations.
Given the competition in Koleosho’s position, that could be vital, especially as he is still establishing himself and only involved at youth level internationally.
“The priority right now is the Premier League and Burnley, everything else is second,” says Melissa. “Eventually he will make his decision when he’s ready.”
Koleosho, you sense, is a player who will get to where he wants to be – sooner rather than later.
(Top photos: Getty Images, Evan Rosenthal)
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