Tuesday, 17 May 2011

What will become of Nuri Sahin at Real Madrid?

“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.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The rise and rise of Martin Kelly

Or: “He that courts injury will obtain it” – Danish Proverb

It was an obscure October night, with nothing particular of note about it. Wet, with classic northern rain, and cold, bitterly cold. European Cup ties were taking place all over the continent, and a team from the centre of France was fulfilling the requirements of its fixture list, at Anfield. The Lyon side contained on the bench an injury-prone youngster called Maxime Gonalons, who would come on to score, and effectively put an early end to Liverpool’s European dreams, which were swiftly morphing into a nightmare. A bright spot emerged that night, an injury-prone youngster, but playing in red, not the white of Lyon. Martin Kelly, a surprise name on the teamsheet to some, who were worried about Govou’s hellish pace. In keeping with the pathetic fallacy and his own past, he was taken off injured in the second half, the skies bearing portents of hurt for the club and the player. Despite all the negative signs and signals from nature though, he was awarded man of the match, and received a standing ovation upon leaving the field.

Despite the array of contemporary criticisms of Rafa’s youth policy, and his preference for expensive foreign imports over the historically vaunted Liverpool academy, his stubbornness and lack of opportunity had a flipside, if a young player was given a chance, you knew he was good enough. This point was added to when a debut was given in Benitez’ favourite (some might say pet) competition, the European Cup. Furthermore, when his first competitive start comes directly against a full French international, with pace to burn and proven goalscoring ability, one had to question, but, as ever blindly trust Benitez’ seemingly-foolish judgement.

Let this not be a tale of woe though, as having seen this genuinely superb first competitive start, I have always felt some affinity with Martin Kelly, as we all do when we chance upon seeing the development of something special.

I had and have heard that there is serious talent developing in Liverpool’s academy, could recite the names of these anointed ones and club saviours, and whilst I endeavour to watch the bigger games, the lack of genuine, first-hand knowledge is why, for me, the arrival of such a player is always both a surprise and a pleasure. The dearth of homegrown talent since Steven Gerrard’s burst onto the scene last century leaves a desire to rave about every single sub-21 year old with a bit of talent. Unfortunately, the nature of modern football makes it clear that very few of these players will ‘make it’, as history has so often taught us. Therefore when one does, or threatens to, it is a joyous occasion that the whole club participates in. Kelly was, and is, one such occasion, one such breakthrough.

It is easy to forget that it was Kelly who was given his chance this season by Roy Hodgson, a regular in the Europa League and a starter in the league against Wigan, after coming on against Chelsea the previous week. However, the previous assertion perhaps disregards Dalglish and Clarke’s role in Kelly’s rise to potential England full-back this calendar year. The confidence Kelly was given in displacing England’s number one right-back Glen Johnson has been on show in his rampaging runs forward, providing two assists thusfar. Shunting Johnson to the left-hand side has also benefited the team as a whole, where he looks much more alert defensively, as well as providing an option who cuts inside whilst going forward. Moreover, the 3-5-2 system that Liverpool employed in February suited Kelly and Johnson’s attacking instincts and gave Liverpool genuine width, something which had been lacking.

Kelly, as a natural centre-back seems to be following in the footsteps of the illustrious Jamie Carragher, starting as a full-back before eventually making his way to the heart of the defence. His defensive abilities have also aided the team, with Liverpool having kept eight clean sheets in the League since Dalglish’s takeover and Kelly’s installation as regular right-back. Kelly’s understanding of the game, for someone so young, is excellent, having made nine interceptions up until his injury.

Alas though, Kelly’s rise has always been a tale blighted by injuries. Although promoted to first-team training at Melwood whilst only 17 years old, Kelly had already lost two years of development to a repetitive back injury. Indeed, his injury-prone nature was highlighted by the game against Lyon, in which he was excellent, but left the field with a groin injury, which prevented further appearances until February. Injured against West Ham this season, and subsequent dropout from the England U-21 squad, followed by an aggravation to the original injury completed Kelly’s third major injury in five seasons, and conclusively ended his 2010-11 campaign. Kelly’s style of play seems to contribute somewhat to his injury record, as someone who flew into 38 tackles in 11 games, with a 76% win record, the highest for any club defender. His buccaneering, rampaging full-back play which takes no prisoners, either offensively or defensively, leaves Kelly prone to more injuries than others. Alternatively, as seen with numerous players down the years, Kelly may be one of those talents who is inexplicably prone to injuries, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Redknapp, Michael Owen, Daniel Agger are all brought to mind. These injuries have another side-effect, which is the constant need to prove oneself. After every injury, it is necessary to remind everyone that you are the same player, possess the same skills, and that the injury hasn’t had any knock-on effects. However, a ramification of this desire to demonstrate fitness and retention of ability can sometimes manifest itself in overdoing it too early, and for a wholehearted performer such as Kelly, taking it easy is not natural.

Kelly shows signs of being the brightest English full-back in years, possessing the attributes to make a success of the role, pace, stamina, strength, tackling and passing ability, as well as sound defensive understanding. The question surrounding the young buck is whether his injury-prone nature will decrease or increase with time, if the former is the case, I fear his career will become as disrupted as Fabio Aurelio or Daniel Agger, if the latter, then Liverpool fans can look forward to a long period of defensive stability, and Kenny will be posed some serious selection headaches. I’m sure though, as the immortal cliché goes, it’s a problem he’d like to have.