Wednesday, December 3 rd, 2014
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The best what-if player in the world: Stoke City's Bojan Krkić and his irrelevant Italian spell
At Roma and Milan the ex Barça infant prodigy seemed to be afraid of the penalty area. Premier League will be a physical challenge for him, and Stoke a last resort for his career
by Jem Bosatta
Roma, Milan and Barcelona fans might join in a collective and regretful sigh as they watch Stoke City FC present their latest summer signing; €5m for Bojan Krkic Perez. He has already opened his goal account with the club in their pre-season tour of Germany, a well-placed shot from outside the box. It didn’t, however, lead to much – Schalke recovered to win 2-1 and Stoke returned home without a single victory to their name.

This match is a cruel illustration of Bojan’s career so far; early glory leading to eventual disappointment – and, crucially, without even playing a full ninety minutes. His is a sad case of ‘peaked too soon’; a what-if player, a could-have-been, a stellar potential that never materialised.

Rewind half a decade and it seemed to be all set up for him. His father (Bojan Sr.) was a Barcelona scout and signed his eight year-old son up to the finest youth academy in the world. There the boy flourished into a rare finisher – nobody is sure who counted, but they say he scored nearly 900 goals in his youth team years, averaging a hat-trick per match. Such was the promise shown by the 17 year-old Bojan that in the 2007-8 season he became 1) the youngest ever Barcelona goalscorer – ever – and 2) nine league goals later, the highest goalscorer in a Spanish debut season. He continued to break records when Luis Aragones, the Euro 2008-winning coach, pounced on his dual-nationality status and made him the second-youngest Spain national of all time.

But it’s been a while since he’s broken a record and that is because he is older than he was. Frankly, his history-making asset was not his remarkable ability but his youth; his youth was sending Barça fans into a frenzy, the thought of what this slight striker might become, of what could be. He was a what-if player from the very beginning.

Upon signing for the Potters, he declared that he best liked “playing as striker or second striker” and Mark Hughes obliged, putting him at the tip of a 4-2-3-1 against Schalke. Stoke fans can count themselves lucky that he found the net at all from that position – in two seasons in Italy he never scored from centre forward, despite that being a frequent position for him. He had most joy when he played on the wing or just behind the striker, but it’s all relative of course; he barely had an influence anywhere he went.

Take for example Roma’s Europa League playoff at the beginning of the 2012-13. Bojan played two full matches on the left wing and failed to register an assist or a goal there. Those two games constituted a third of his full appearances all season, and he had no better luck in any of the others; no assists, no goals, no nothing. In Roma’s two Coppa Italia matches he was also on the wing, and once again was all but absent for the 60 minutes he played in each match. When he did get his name on the scoresheet, he never played the entire game and it was seldom influential on the match. He scored the 4th in a 5-2 victory over minnows Novara and the last goal in a 4-0 drubbing of Inter; he bagged last-minute consolation goals against Lecce and Milan (when the match was already lost). The other three goals he scored that season were against Novara, Cesena and Atalanta, two of which were about to be relegated. In summary: at Roma, most of what he did was simply adding to foregone conclusions.

The following season at the San Siro was documented in far more detail but the data is anything but flattering and only goes to add to the suspicions that had already festered during his time at the Olimpico. Take for instance the 90’ that Bojan played in Milan’s 5-1 victory over Chievo Verona. He was playing in the central attacking midfielder in 4-2-3-1 – the trequartista, the playmaker. Apart from a twenty-yard goal at 2-0 up, his contribution was negligible. In the attacking third he only attempted 18 passes, none of which ended up in the box; the 13 that found their target ended up on the wing or deeper into the half. He attempted six take-ons and failed five of them; he tried three crosses, only one of which reached its target.

It was a similar story in the Milan derby where he played as one of two strikers – he simply seemed to be afraid of the eighteen yard box. He only took one shot from inside it, received one pass standing in it, only sent one good pass into it and attempted four crosses, all of which failed. Unsurprisingly, he did not score or assist.

The root of the problem is that he is a victim of his own success; when he was a teenager, he was playing people who were at a similar level to him physically and he scored nine hundred goals in eight years. In seven years of senior football, he has scored fifty six goals. This is because technically he has it all, but physically and mentally he is still years behind. Overall, he has an average of five goals per season across the three years that he has been trying to prove himself to Barcelona. Little wonder then that Luis Enrique, despite his long-standing relationship with the player, agreed to offload him as soon as he returned from Ajax and now he must face every footballer’s ultimate test – doing it on a wet, windy night in Stoke. This is a cliché, yes, but could not be more apt; the increased physicality of the English game might force him into an epiphany. He must realise that the way he plays does not reflect the attitude of a truly attack-minded, eclectic young striker.

One match report from the Schalke game described him as an “extra man in midfield”. Perhaps this stems from his early years at Barcelona where Bojan would have been far less physically developed than his opponents, leading him to avoid the battles of strength and pace and rely on his youthful agility and wile to carry him through. And rightly so, at the time – but he can’t play that game forever.

My question is the same one that has plagued Bojan Krkic Perez’ entire adult career; what if? What could be? What if he stopped avoiding the opposition centre-backs, and what if he stopped drifting deeper and wider and stayed in the centre-forward position?

If his new manager Mark Hughes is going to persevere with playing him at striker, he will have to shake off whatever inhibitions he has built about getting stuck into the 18-yard box and step up to the physical challenge that is the Barclays Premier League.

Frank Rijkaard, the manager who gave the boy his debut, said it best at the very beginning: "It does not matter if a player is only 17; if he gets to play with even better players then, especially in the beginning, his level will increase hugely. But it is when people get to know who you are that the really important moment starts for a talent.”

Bojan enjoyed that level jump when he was 17 and has now hit a plateau; but, as Rijkaard hinted, I still don’t think he knows who he is and therefore that moment is yet to start. He is not a flop just yet, but he has the potential to be one; he is not a star yet, and he has a long way to climb back, but he still certainly has the potential to be one, if only...

Sunday, August 3 rd, 2014
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