“Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.”
It is a chillingly familiar tale. Youthful prospect has fantastic season, fulfilling ‘potential’ at boyhood club, leading them to huge success. Youthful prospect adored by fans and teammates alike. Youthful prospect has head turned by Iberian overtures. Youthful prospect is seduced by such overtures. Youthful fool joins Spanish giant.
There are naturally exceptions to the rule. But, just as naturally, the surprise success of such exceptions only serves to prove the rule. Firstly, it is my own belief that Nuri Sahin should have stayed at Borussia Dortmund. He would have had the chance to lead his boyhood club to a tilt at the European Cup, whilst trying to retain the German championship. His wages would surely have increased considerably by signing a new contract, and he would have had the chance to show unequivocally, in a familiar environment, that he is one of the best deep-lying playmakers in world football.
Indeed, using the above quotation as a guide, does Sahin have enough experience to justify his departure as a good decision? Or will this be a bad decision that goes on to shape experience? The temptation is understandable, joining FIFA’s club of the twentieth-century, with a genuine chance of winning the European Cup, working with one of the best coaches and motivators in world football, plying his trade with one of his best friends Mesut Ozil, and playing with or against some of the best footballers on the planet. In his tear-strewn press conference Sahin listed such reasons as decisive factors in his choice.
Firstly, let us examine his competition. Sahin, in recent years, has made the “quarterback position” as the creative hub at the base of a midfield his. In such a role, Real Madrid play Xabi Alonso, as essential to their playing style as his national teammate Xavi is to Barcelona’s. Alongside Alonso is the workhorse Sami Khedira, who seems a Mourinho favourite. The term ‘workhorse’ perhaps negates Khedira’s talents, he is too often shoehorned as a man who breaks up play, and although this is his natural role, his energy, distribution (although not a patch on Sahin or Alonso’s), and heading offer Madrid a different option. In reserve stand Lassana Diarra, Fernando Gago and Esteban Granero. Despite all three being talented players, they look likely to be victims of Mourinho’s summer cull. In comparison though, as a potential replacement, Sahin is neither a destroyer like Diarra, nor a utility player like Granero. He seems to be more similar to Gago, although perhaps more creative and less mobile. Regardless, it would be unlike Mourinho to play Sahin alongside Alonso, as although both are intelligent readers of the game, neither is as tenacious or rangy as a Khedira or a Diarra. Sport Bild envisions Sahin fighting with Khedira for the remaining holding midfield place, which is probably a plausible reading, yet what are the other options for the Turk?
Hypothetically, how would Sahin complement Alonso? After all, his teammate Lucas Barrios sees him ‘playing alongside Alonso’. In the field of distribution, they would complement one another perfectly, one right-footer, one left-footer, both are capable of short or long passes. Indeed, both players read the game superbly, are capable of breaking up the play, but both are accustomed to having a genuine defensive midfielder, a workhorse, alongside them to do the unglamorous work, and always have been (Mascherano, Khedira, Bender, Kehl). Sahin is probably more mobile than Alonso (although less mobile than Khedira), but would not naturally suit such the ‘Makelele role’ alongside the irreplaceable Spaniard, and deployment as one to destroy would be a waste of his talents. Although, in playing them together, it is imaginable Sahin playing with freedom to press forward, as well as to sit deep and create. Yet, this contravenes Mourinho’s dogmatic, defensive approach, and leaves his team more exposed than the Portuguese would ever sanction. It is likely that Mourinho views Sahin as a long-term successor to the 29 year-old Alonso, to warm the bench for this season and gradually ease him into the role occupied by the Basque.
Another alternative for Mourinho would be to stick with the 4-3-3 which he played against Barcelona, with Pepe, Alonso and Sahin replacing Khedira in the three in midfield, which also offers the aforementioned left-foot/right-foot balance. Yet, such a formation was used infrequently by Mourinho, and it removes Pepe from his central defensive position, where his understanding with Carvalho has been cerebral.
If we look further forward then, where Sahin is capable of playing, if not natural, the same type of problem occurs. The array of talented, settled attacking midfielders seems to block Sahin’s potential integration into an advanced midfield role in the team. The flanks are filled with the electric pair of Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, with Pedro Leon, probably Jose Callejon, as well as the versatile Granero in reserve. In the creative role behind the striker stands the incomparable Mesut Ozil. The German has had a wonderful debut season in Spain, and perhaps (with Khedira) demonstrates the ideal example for Sahin to follow, yet Ozil seamlessly filled in for an injured Kaka, who, after returning, provides back-up with the oft-forgotten Sergio Canales. It is unlikely though, that Mourinho deploys Sahin out of position, unless out of necessity, which, with Madrid’s squad depth, seems improbable.
Sahin, having been feted for years as the next great playmaker, seems so very close to living up to Arsene Wenger’s promise as “one of the world’s biggest talents”, and this transfer will come to define the young Turk’s career. Mesut Ozil is surely the example, yet the high-profile, well-publicised failures of Metzelder, Cicinho, Woodgate, Reyes, and Cassano demonstrate to Sahin how easy it is for a talented player to fall into mediocrity, for resilience to crumble when placed into the Bernabeu spotlight, for experience not to help make good decisions, but to develop from bad decisions.