Monday, 18 April 2011

The Playmaker

Alexander Hleb. Or Aleksandr, like the meerkat off that over-played advert. However you spell it, he's still the same player: impeccably, undoubtedly talented. An attacking midfielder who lacks pace which he more than makes up for in skill, vision and overall talent. He has a somewhat lazy persona; with the smallest shin-pads, if any, and socks rolled down as if he were playing in the park. He saunters about the pitch as he pleases but it's what he does with the ball that is most enjoyable to watch. You look to someone like Hleb to change a game; to play that pass no one else can see; to have that eye for the perfect through ball or the most delicate of shots into the net.

Unfortunately we've not seen much of this. What promised to be a good loan and a nice bit of business for the club on the final day of the Summer transfer window has petered out into a short, but sweet, stint for the Belarusian. His unfortunate injuries picked up throughout the course of the 2010/11 season have hindered his chance to show Blues what he is really about, and shorten his opportunities at showcasing himself on the big stage of the Premier League once again in hope of being rescued from his unfruitful time at Barcelona.

We have seen glimpses of what he is capable of. His goal against MK Dons in the Carling Cup was one of the first signs, as was that brilliant run against Fulham, his only Premier League goal against Blackpool, and then there was his great performance in the first half against Sheffield Wednesday before he was cruelly tackled and subsequently injured again showed us that the 29 year old still has a lot left to offer to any club.

And his substitute performance providing the second goal of the game against Sunderland again conveyed just why McLeish decided to get him in on loan: Hleb's choice to pass the ball to Craig Gardner in acres of space instead of going for glory himself highlight two characteristics of the finely-finished player he is: unselfish with great vision.

But it's his attitude, I suppose, has got in the way of him progressing and becoming a Blues favourite, as has unfortunately his lack of game time due to injury. We always knew it would be a one season loan affair, and he knew it too, despite him now talking like he's just decided over the past few weeks that our style of play leaves much to be desired.

He says he won't be staying because, at Blues, "you need to just fight and run, not too much passing" which is something I will take as a compliment seeing as at our club, in a relegation battle, fight is exactly what you want. After all, it won us the Carling Cup over Arsenal, did it not? It appears, in that case, that although Hleb wants to be at a club who always play the passing game, it takes a lot more than just pretty football to win trophies. Manchester United, although passing it about superbly, have players who "fight" and never give up - and this is why they win games; win trophies.

The reason Hleb is so overwhelmed with this idea of "fight" and "run" is because he's never had to do it before. He's played for Arsenal, he's played in the Champions League for Stuttgart, he's played for Barcelona - and the last one speaks for itself. But realistically, if he goes back to Barcelona and wants to play, or if he really wants this dream move back to Arsenal, fighting is exactly what he is going to have to do, whether he likes it or not.

In any case, surely if Hleb wanted to go to a club surrounded by players of his own ilk, then snubbing Liverpool, Benfica and Spurs for battling Blues was the wrong move for him. Did he come in the quest of first team football? Has he got a crystal ball and could see what future riches lay ahead in the form of a shiny gold Carling Cup Winners medal? Whatever it was, he came to Blues and now despite stating he has no future in the second city, he has vowed to give 100% in whatever part he plays in the remaining fixtures.

People are understandably miffed - for want of a better word - about his comments, but he was simply asked a question and he answered it, maybe more brutally than we would have liked, but he answered it. For his honesty, I admire him. Some of his comments could be misconstrued, especially if you read The Mirror, but he clearly has enjoyed his time here. Firstly, he admitted it: "I am happy and I am enjoying my time here, everything is good here" and secondly you only have to look how he acted when we won the Carling Cup - against his beloved Arsenal - if that's a man that doesn't like us, then I must be missing something here. Obviously the bottom line is he won't stay here next season. The jist of what he said is basically; thanks for the "different experience" and some game time. And of course the Carling Cup medal.

Personally, I like him. I'm not sure how he won me over, probably that cheeky smile and his footballing ability. Along with the fact, or realization, that he is exactly the type of player we need if we want to move forward. At Blues what we need, along with our fighters, our battlers and our players with the never say die attitude, is a few players like Hleb. We've seen that, even when fit, we often have to change our side to accommodate Hleb, when in an ideal world a player of his stature should be able to fit in alongside someone else with the same unpredictable and exciting talent. Players like him, along with the '110% every game' players we already have are what we need to continue going forward as a club.

Clearly he is a good player but if he thinks Arsenal would welcome in back with open arms he might want to take a look at their midfield before he calls up his best mate Fabregas to ask for a favour. Moving to Barcelona was the wrong career choice. He probably should have stayed at Arsenal. But mistakes are always made in football.

Nevertheless, after all that has been said, I'm sure he'll look back at possibly his last stint in the Premier League with fond memories, and walk away from Birmingham with a Carling Cup Winners medal in his back pocket. Fight and running can't be all bad then, eh, Alex?

Footnote: I wrote this because of Hleb's latest interview and wanted to break down what he had said more for myself than anything else. The articles in the Birmingham Mail and The Guardian cover Hleb's interview fully and make for much better reading than the shortened down and edited version in The Mirror. If anyone is interested to read any more about Hleb I suggest reading here or here.

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