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Archive for March, 2011

I recently found my way to RunofPlay.com.  The site seems to be an outlet for Soccer related content from freelance writer, Brian Phillips, who has a quality writing resume (certainly light years beyond anyone on the I Fischi staff).  Visually, the site verges on perfect.  The content itself is well written, literary in style and trending more towards opinionated, blown out anecdotes than anything terribly insightful; worth a look though.

What specifically struck me in such a fashion that I had to share my opinion on the internets again is this article on the Barcelona striker, 20 year old Bojan Krkic.  A drawn out wonderment of why such a promising youngster has yet to light the world on fire.

First the facts on Mr Krkic:

  • Youngest Champion’s League appearance for Barcelona
  • Youngest player ever to score in La Liga for FCB (breaking Leo Messi’s record)
  • 2nd Youngest Goalscorer ever in the CL (by 22 days)
  • A legend holds that he scored something like 960 goals in the youth ranks (not a fact)

With such a strong resume at such a young age, it begins to make some sense that Krkic has been a popular subject of both wild speculation and pointed criticism as he has spent large stretches of this season on the bench.  Add in the the integral role he played at the end of last season (7 goals in the final 12 games of La Liga and keeping overvalued Zlatan Ibrahimavic on the bench), and it is understandable that the negative opinions have become so loud that we are now voicing them in soccer-crazed America.

However, when looked at a little closer, it becomes clear that anything calling Bojan a bust at this point is, at best, a mis-guided reaction to his prolific individual ability.

The game as a whole has recently evolved around a more withdrawn striker, making the position less of a poacher/target player and more of interchangeable forward.  The positioning and movement involved are much more complex compared to the responsibilities involved in being a target striker  (ZonalMarking.net has a breakdown on the evolution).  It is now less about individual ability/goals, and more about being creating and moving as well as finishing clinically.

In the first team of such an advanced club, Krkic cannot just rely on speed and his ability to score but must also be responsible and answer to the complicated tactics preferred by Pep Guardiola.  He has had some reported struggles on the bench as any elite professional athlete yearns to compete, but he seems to appreciate that his development has actually continued under Pep, despite the lack of minutes.

On a personal level, to even be 20 years old and the 2nd choice striker on arguably the best team in the world puts him select company:

The only other striker born in the 90s on a top 4 team of a major league (Spain, England, Italy, Germany) that is also a top-5 goal scorer on their team, the extremely mercurial Mario Balotelli.  I would say he is ahead of Balotelli at this point in time.

A lot of qualifiers there but the point is that, to be an integral member at Barcelona at his age is quite an accomplishment.

For those who suggest that based on his playing time this year (753 total minutes, 1 league start) he isn’t integral, I would suggest you observe an entire European league season.  Barcelona has been very fortunate to have their preferred starting trio of Messi, Pedro, Villa in tact for virtually the entire season.  Bojan recently got his first start based on a Pedro muscle injury and just happened to score the winner.  In total, he has scored 5 goals over the course of a season that has seen him play a total of about 8 1/3 complete games, a pretty good rate.

Phillips also questions how at a team with such a tradition of developing world-class players, they haven’t developed this prodigy better.  He seems to have missed that there is a very well defined strategy for devleoping the youth, outlined to perfection at totalbarca.com; part1 and part2.  In short though, it is not just about displaying the talent but growing into a leader of the B squad before being promoted.  (Random relevant fact, Barcelona B’s leading striker this season is 25 year old Jonathan Soriano)

Krkic spent just a year at the B level before being promoted – in similar fashion to the reigning 2-time ballon d’or winner, Lionel Messi.  Because he is not Lionel Messi though does not mean he has failed to live up to his potential, Messi is an extreme example, a rare athlete that has been graced with an ability verging on super-natural.

Bojan is a fascinating young talent, the 2nd choice striker on the best team in the world with a very promising career in front of him.   He has had to learn from observing more often than participating, and performing when called upon, both of which he seems to have done superbly.

It is absurd to say he has failed to live up to his potential because he isn’t leading the Barcelona front-line at the age of 20.  Probably the most important reason though; Barcelona is a club focused on winning titles every year, and Bojan is obviously not mature/developed enough to the point where they could compete on multiple fronts if he was the #1 striker.

Might he be sold this summer? Yes, but it could the result of a financial decision as much as a technical one.  Ideally, he would stay at Barcelona and continue his development, as he has proven a reliable replacement when called upon and is still on the road to stardom.  Plus, I would love to proven right.

Americans…

The connection from Barcelona developed talent to the American National Team isn’t quite a clear one but when it comes to the topic of potential, I think it translates well.

Specifically relevant based on the latest in the line of American’s to burst on the stage, Juan Agudelo.  Still only 18, but with 2 goals in his first 3 Senior Team appearances, it is clear that this young man has a very bright future.  However, as he continues to shine, and based on his performances in both the MLS and for the USMNT I have no doubt he will, the attention from Europe will increase.

What will follow is probably a well publicized transfer to a relatively high-profile European team, some waning attention as it turns out he won’t be immediately leading said team to a league title, and then the questioning of what happened to Juan Agudelo.

He won’t actually have failed to fulfill his potential but he will have gone from being a big fish in a tiny pond, to being a big fish in an ocean.  Whereas in America he is the only one at his age performing at that level, there are probably at least 10 Italian, 10 Spanish, 10 French, 10 Dutch, 10 British, 10 Argentinian and 10 Brazilian kids at the same level.  He will take time to adjust to the speed of the game and will undoubtedly struggle at times, whether it’s with injury or the culture or a coach that doesn’t like him.

This isn’t to say it’s the wrong move and in-fact it is a good move.  To become a top-tier team, the US needs their top talent to want the challenge of going abroad and experience alongside that the best in the world will fully display and teach what goes into being world class.

Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu both went overseas at a very young age.  Both have had some struggles but now find themselves in positions where they are getting quality playing time on a weekly basis.

Freddy Adu specifically seems to have benefitted from increased playing time, having scored at least 2x for his latest club.  Despite being in the 2nd division in Turkey, he hasn’t given up over there and has continued to make the necessary moves to ensure he continues to get better and learn what it takes to be a professional.  Despite his struggles, he hasn’t taken the easy road and come back to the US, a lot more than can be said for the young Landon Donovan after his struggles in Germany as a 23 year old.  For anyone to count Adu out as a future piece of the USMNT is short-sighted and probably a hater.

Those players who have had the most success abroad have had it later in their careers.  The best example being Clint Dempsey.  He recently became the highest single season scoring American in the history of the EPL, 10 goals this year at the age of 28.  He dealt with being a reserve in his first season at the age of 24, only 10 appearances and a single goal, before becoming a regular starter for the past 4 seasons.

For anyone to have thought that Freddy Adu would be leading a top-tier European club at the age of 22 was over-reacting as only Americans do.  The same goes for Jozy Altidore.  The adjustment period is intense and often longer than anticipated, that does not mean that these guys should be staying in the MLS though.  To be the best, you must consistently challenge yourself against the best.

Tonight

Coming off a quality draw vs Argentina, the US prepares for their 2nd International Friendly of the current FIFA break vs Paraguay (8PM tonight – Fox Soccer Channel).  This should be a more telling example of the state of the team compared to Saturday’s draw vs Argentina.

We knew before Saturday that this team is excellent at packing the back and trying to score on the counter-attack or from a set-piece.  The US can tie anyone in the world, and because of that, every now and again there will be a crazy result like the one vs Spain in the 09 Confederations cup.  Tying these elite teams teams does not mean they are on the verge of consistently beating them.

The next step forward is to consistently beat teams that are ranked near them by FIFA; Paraguay, Ghana, Slovenia, etc.  Teams that the US struggles with because they also like to play a disruptive style and hope for success on the counter-attack.  The fact that this game is at home really means that they should win.

On Saturday, the US looked a lot better when they moved to the 4-4-2 system in the 2nd half.  Agudelo is a nice replacement for Charlie Davies (already light years ahead of Edson Buddle/Robbie Findley) and showed a good understanding with Jozy Altidore, let’s see if he get’s his first start tonight, it is deserved.

The 3 CM combo of Bradley Jr, Jones, & Edu didn’t work out so hotly as they are very similar players and don’t have the ability or understanding to pass their way out of tight areas in their own 1/3.  Subsequently they were reduced to a lot of long balls vs Argentina, and once winning the ball, Jozy just had nowhere to go with it.  I think the 2nd half combo of Edu/Bradley is the best bet.

Bradley could get a little experimental and give some time to Mikkel Diskerud, Benny Feilhaber, or Sacha Kljestan in the midfield.  Defensively you could see the young Red Bull, Tim Ream, get a start instead of Onyewu or Demerit.  Timothy Chandler probably deserves at least another 45 minutes after what was one of the most promising debuts of recent memory.

A good view from the NYTimes on suggested changes for tonight. Love the thinking.

Anyone have thoughts on any of the 1800 previous words (#ramblingconvolutedblogposts), please share, I like arguing….

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