COLUMN: La Liga’s third fastest player who went from amateur football to Spain prospect in two years

Last month, LaLiga repeated its annual tradition of clocking the fastest players in the top flight of Spanish football. I look forward to this every year, because I am a big nerd and I love this league.

All 20 teams get a representative in the “fastest player” graphic, and there are always one or two surprises. Most people expect players like Vinicius, Inaki Williams, and Thierry Correia to feature high up the list each year, but others – like Savinho, Bryan Zaragoza, and Samu Omorodion – are among the league’s revelations as 2023 turns to 2024.

It is entirely too appropriate that Samu is Deportivo Alaves’ fastest player. He clocked the third-fastest time among all LaLiga players at 35.4 km/h, his speed mirroring his meteoric rise over the opening months of the 2023/24 season. The teenager began the year as the pearl of Granada’s academy and has now found his footing at Alaves – on loan from Atletico Madrid, which hopes he will form a major part of its future.

Born in the North African city of Melilla, which lies along Spain’s non-contiguous border with Morocco, Samu and his parents moved to Andalusia when he was little and he grew up in Seville. Samu played for hyper-local AD Nervion to begin his career, and – despite the proximity to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan – he made the leap to Granada’s academy in 2021. Sevilla were among the cabal of clubs that jostled to sign Samu on loan in August, but he had been playing in Los Nervionenses’ backyard the whole time.

Within a year, Samu had debuted as a 17-year-old for Recreativo Granada, the reserve team playing in the fourth tier of Spanish football. Last season, he scored 14 goals in 29 games and added four more in the four-game promotion playoff slate, helping Granada’s B team gain promotion to the third tier. In April, Samu renewed his contract to 2028, and a strong preseason under Paco Lopez convinced the head coach that the Spain under-21s striker belonged in Granada’s first team.

Samu’s idol growing up was Samuel Eto’o, probably Africa’s greatest-ever forward. Watching him in action this season, it’s clear to see how heavily Samu has modeled his game on Eto’o, the former. Mallorca and Barcelona forward who scored 162 goals in Primera. 

Of Samu’s five goals in LaLiga this season, he has scored two with his right foot, two with his left foot, and one with his head. In his first top-flight season, Samu’s mark of 0.77 expected goals per 90 minutes ranks third – third! – in LaLiga, behind only Cristhian Stuani and Robert Lewandowski. At a towering 1.93m (6’4’’), Samu possesses not only the speed but the brawn and physicality to project as a high-level forward, especially if the composure (5 actual goals, but 7.16 xG) comes around.

Samu demonstrated that kind of elite composure in his very first Primera appearance back in August – an appointment with Atletico at the Metropolitano. Samu spent much of that sizzling summer night bullying Mario Hermoso and Stefan Savic, capping his debut with a sweet left-footed strike from the edge of the six-yard box that levelled the scores at one apiece. 

Although Granada would end up losing 3-1, Atleti had seen enough. One week later, Samu was a Colchonero, his €6m release clause deposited at LaLiga HQ in Madrid.

Samu’s departure won’t be forgotten quickly at Granada. Paco Lopez was bitterly disappointed to lose the young forward, who had interest from around Spain and even in England (that Hoover vacuum of domestic competitions). “We’re left without a player in a position where we’re already very light,” Lopez said at the time.

Granada were waiting for 2024 to change Samu’s status as a youth player and register him as a full first-team player – which would have come with another contract renewal and a significantly-higher €40m release clause. But Atletico acted quickly, working with Juanma Lopez – a former Atleti player and one of Samu’s agents – to put the deal in motion immediately following the matchday one contest.

What’s happened to Granada since cannot be attributed just to Samu leaving before the summer window closed. After a 2-0 loss to Real Madrid on Saturday, Granada sit 19th with one win and 10 losses from 15 games; Grana have picked up one point from the past 18 available and sacked Lopez last week. The Opta Analyst model believes Granada have an 84 percent chance to finish somewhere in the bottom three and thus suffer immediate relegation back to Segunda.

Alaves, the big winners of the Samu chase, picked up a valuable point Sunday afternoon in a goalless draw at Mallorca (although Samu could not extend his goalscoring run to three league games in a row). The Basque side sits 13th in the table after gaining promotion back to the top flight via the playoff – giving it the least amount of time to prepare for the Primera season – and Samu is its top scorer, with four goals from nine shots on target across 633 minutes. His next steps should include refining his first touch and developing better timing to win aerial duels, but the raw tools are there for the 19-year-old to round into a complete forward.

Samu’s progression – not to mention his club future – will be fascinating to see as it unfolds. A couple dominoes would have to fall at Atletico next year in order to make a first-team place viable, but Diego Simeone has integrated multiple exciting young players into the side this season as he starts to build the next Atleti project. Given Memphis Depay’s injury issues and murmurs of discontent with his entourage, it is possible that the club decides to move on from the Dutchman next summer as he enters the final year of his contract.

Of course, Samu could make it so that Simeone has no choice but to include him in the 2024/25 squad. What if he ends his maiden campaign in LaLiga with double-digit goals? That would already make him an upgrade on Memphis, who hasn’t even played 500 minutes in the league since he joined from Barca. Samu is also a different type of forward to Memphis, as Simeone himself has admitted – the coach has likened him to Diego Costa, one of his favorite players and an Atleti icon.

When Samu was told about this comparison in a recent interview with Diario AS, the kid made it clear that he has his feet on the ground and is working every day to harness those raw abilities into a total package.

“Being compared to a player who has made history at Atletico Madrid is always appreciated, but I am Samu, and I want to write my own story.”