Thursday, 3 February 2011

Afellay: A Hleb or a Cruyff?

In mid-November, PSV and Barcelona confirmed the transfer of Ibrahim Afellay for around €3 million. The first question evoked by this transfer is, do Barca need another attacking-midfielder? This is the team that beat their closest rivals 5 nothing in El Classico two weeks later. What could this team gain in buying another midfielder?
They bought Javier Mascherano in the summer and he has barely featured so far. When one considers he cost around €20 million, that is a lot to spend on a player who is not a regular. Will the same be the case for Afellay, although he cost very little and he will surely start as a sub and will primarily be used as a sub for most of the season.
Who is he replacing in the long-term?
The likelihood is that he will slowly replace Xavi as he’s 31 in January, although he doesn’t look like losing his masterly touch anytime soon. Afellay can play most places in an attacking position with the exception of playing as a striker. He is a perfect player in many ways for Barcelona, a small lightweight player who is very tidy on the ball, although he hasn’t come through the famed La Masia, like many in the current red and blue. But growing up in the Netherlands and being nurtured into a style of football of which Barcelona is the supreme master, the two should fit perfectly.
The Hleb factor
After a great season with Arsenal in 2007/08 Aliaksandr Hleb signed for Barcelona. He looked to be a good signing: creative, agile and technically sound, Hleb was the stereotypical Barcelona footballer. At Arsenal he usually played on the left or right wing in a 4-4-2, and he had great success in the Premier League with the Gunners. I always felt Arsenal let Hleb go for far too little and still do. He was bought and sold for around the same amount and for the season preceding his departure he, along with Rosicky, Fabregas and Flamini, formed a strong bind in midfield. They looked great and obviously Wenger didn’t have enough faith in Hleb or failed to convince him to stay, but at the time it looked to be Barcelona’s gain and a big loss for the Gunners. The problem perhaps with Hleb was he was there between managers but also he didn’t get a long run of opportunities, as there were few injuries or loss of form to the players in his position(s). Only the other day the Birmingham manager Alex McLeish, where Hleb plays, said “He took a bit of beating mentally with the Barcelona experience”. He also said “I never spoke to him about it but Alex himself said he’s got to rebuild his confidence”.
The reason I picked Hleb a comparative footballer is that he joined Barcelona on a high and seemingly lost it all after sitting on the bench once he got there. Technically, Hleb is a similar player to Afellay and he also faces the same problem of forcing his way into an already established Barcelona midfield. Afellay does have age on his side and hopefully this will mean with time he will be used more. For as much as I love watching the current Barcelona team, I also hate to see a talented player wasted on the bench as Hleb was. If this occurs then surely he’ll go off somewhere else, but for at least a season he will have to be patient.
The first Dutchman at Camp Nou:
Arguably the most famous Dutch player ever, Johann Cruyff enjoyed huge success at the Nou Camp, both as a player and manager. He was the star of Dutch football in the 70s, the team which created the term, ‘Total football‘. Cruyff was also very successful as manager at Barcelona and won 4 La Liga titles in 8 years. He is currently the manager of the Catalan football team a feat that goes to show his love for the area. What he achieved there should inspire Afellay, who is another Dutch star in a long line to play at Barcelona. Ronald Koeman, Frank De Boer, Marc Overmars and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst to just name a few. Cruyff on average scored a goal every 3 games, a superb record. Ibrahim Afellay’s start at Barca will be intriguing and even if he isn’t quite as good from the start as Cruyff it’ll go a long way to keeping the Dutch tradition up whilst achieving as much or even more than his compatriots.
A good enough squad?
When you take a closer look into Barcelona’s squad you see how it is full of young academy products. If Iniesta or Xavi gets injured there aren’t too many established players who could fill the role. Adriano is a useful utility player but functions as a DM or LB. Seydou Keita is their only option to fill this role but doesn‘t offer the same threat or incisiveness . However it would take some performance to keep a place from Iniesta or Xavi. Pep Guardiola has previous poor relations, as despite his immediate success with Barcelona, Guardiola has not bought particularly well. Ibrahimovic and Chygrynskiy both didn’t work in the team, although I personally thought Ibrahimovic had some good moments. Barcelona effectively paid the two Milan clubs 20 million and gave them Eto’o and Ibrahimovic. A staggering amount of money in order to lose. But now after two years it appears Guardiola may have found his perfect squad.
Overall I feel it’s a good move for him, what he will gain from playing and training around such a great array of players can only help. Chances for him will be slim at start and he must take them. He will now be a small fish in a big pond unlike at PSV where he had become a huge fan favourite. Unlike Hleb he is a bit younger and  joins at a time when Barcelona are dominating football. If, like Hleb he doesn’t make it, he can move on knowing that he has been at a club playing scintillating football and that not many others would come along and walk into the team. Whatever does happen  no doubt it’ll be worth following Ibi.

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