Players of his kind are en vogue once again. As tactics are geared once more towards passing rather than over-reliance on brute strength, news of deep-lying playmaker Nuri Şahin’s bargain transfer to Real Madrid fuelled belief that he would’ve been an instant hit, especially given his outstanding displays for Borussia Dortmund. However, almost a year on, the reality is that it is far from so.
A knee injury suffered while playing for his former club sidelined the Turkish playmaker for several months. In fact, he arrived at the Santiago Bernabéu with this injury, forced to wait for the chance to play for who he thinks is “the best coach” in José Mourinho and “the best club in the world” in Real Madrid.
After working hard to regain his fitness, he made his debut in the Champions League versus Dinamo Zagreb. Although featuring for the entire game, he never really got going. However, an encouraging performance against Ajax in the same competition followed by another versus Ponferradina in the second leg of the Copa del Rey, a game in which he scored a goal, laid the groundwork for what would be his best performance yet.
It was against APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League where he showed what he was really capable of. Şahin turned in a performance of the highest quality, dictating the game’s tempo and passing the ball with incredible composure. With 92 touches of the ball in that game,* completing 91% of his passes, he proved an influential figure as Madrid beat the eventual quarter-finalists by a convincing margin of 3-0. It was a performance that drew praise from pundits, Madrid fans, team-mates, and also José Mourinho.
Interestingly, despite having never played in the Champions League before, it is in that competition that he has impressed when given what has proven to be rare opportunities at his new club. After 2 starts and 2 substitute appearances domestically, he is yet to turn in a decent performance in La Liga.
Speculation is already rife concerning Şahin’s future, with unconfirmed reports suggesting that Real Madrid are willing to listen to loan offers for the player in the summer. There were also rumours that former club Dortmund and Inter Milan tried unsuccessfully to loan the player in the recent January transfer window. Despite costing a mere €10m, it looks like Nuri Şahin’s career has plateaued at Real Madrid and despite being just one year into his 6-year contract in Spain, his number may already be up at the Bernabéu. Could it really be the end so soon, though?
Is he really a flop?
Moving to Real Madrid is always a bit of a risk. Many players go there, but few are able to live up to their expectations at such a prestigious, demanding club. The likes of Mahamadou Diarra, Lassana Diarra, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, and Kaka, just to name a few, are players who struggled to fulfil expectations despite leaving their previous clubs with a formidable reputation.
Nuri Şahin, at the moment, may come across as the latest player to succumb to the pressure of being at Real Madrid. However, despite him being there for almost a year, it’s still too early to call him a flop. His problems this season have centered around fitness rather than form. A lack thereof saw him complete his first 90 minutes for the club as late as in November 2011. This lack of fitness saw him make just 8 appearances since then. In a nutshell, Şahin has been unfortunate, not a flop.
Will he come good at Real Madrid?
There’s no doubting the talent of Şahin. This is a player who was easily Borussia Dortmund’s best performer since returning from a loan spell at Feyenoord, where he also impressed. In fact, Şahin won the Bundesliga ‘player of the year’ award before jetting off to Spain. Given this level of ability, the question is more about whether Şahin would get a chance at Real Madrid rather than if he is good enough to play there.
In the end, though, he hasn’t played enough for one to give a definitive answer for either question. As was mentioned before, there has been much speculation concerning his future at the club. If he stays, however, he would definitely need to prove his fitness in pre-season if he is to have any chance of squeezing into the lineup next season. That said, would it be hard for him to force himself into first team reckoning?
Not really. Without doubt, Xabi Alonso is an automatic pick for Mourinho. The midfield slot alongside him, however, has seen periods of rotation this season with Sami Khedira, Lassana Diarra, Esteban Granero, and even Fábio Coentrão all featuring there at one time or another during the season. None of these players have truly stood out as exceptional in this position, however.
There opens a window of opportunity for Şahin. A Xabi Alonso-Şahin partnership would encourage creativity of unimaginable proportions. After all, Xabi Alonso boasts an enviable pass completion percentage of 88. In addition, he has completed a decent 33.3% of his through balls and averages 1.8 key passes per game. Basically, while Mesut Özil hogs the spotlight as far as assists is concerned (he has 17 in the league this season), it’s actually Xabi Alonso who is the puppet master in midfield; he stays deep and dictates the tempo of Real Madrid’s game.
Nuri Şahin can be just as influential. Over his last 2 seasons at Dortmund, he averaged 3 key passes per game and a fantastic through ball accuracy of 43.9%. He is quite adept at taking set-pieces too — direct or indirect. He also loves to break forward whenever possible, often making late runs into the box or waiting just outside the penalty area where he loves to test the goalkeeper from range. Such a desire to get forward yielded 10 league goals over those 2 seasons. Though, this desire has proven to be his undoing in some ways.
When Şahin breaks forward, he leaves space in behind him and when possession is lost he has to then track back to cover the lost ground. His being caught out resulted in him averaging 1.6 fouls per game and being dribbled by opponents an average of 2.1 times per game while at Dortmund.
On the bright side, though, he is more than willing to put himself about defensively. As a matter of fact, he rarely backs away from a tackle, averaging 3.6 per game while at Dortmund. In addition, he averaged 2.4 interceptions and .8 clearances — both per game.
Xabi Alonso knows a thing or two about defending as well, averaging 3 tackles, 2.2 interceptions, and .9 clearances this season — all per game. On the downside, he averages almost 2 fouls and is dribbled by opponents almost the same amount of times — both per game. He doesn’t break forward quite as often as Şahin, so the fact that he is dribbled so often is a bit of a concern. Indeed, this partly explains why Real Madrid frequently give away goal scoring opportunities to their opponents — atypical of a team managed by the usually defensively astute José Mourinho.
So as creative a partnership Şahin and Xabi Alonso would be, it would certainly prove a risky one. It’s not impossible to pair them together, though. They just need to be covered by a defensive midfielder. In comes the suggestion of a 4-3-3 for next season. José Mourinho is no stranger to this system having used it generously at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and even a few times at Real Madrid. By positioning either Sami Khedira or Lassana Diarra just behind Xabi Alonso and Nuri Şahin, creativity would be efficiently complemented by defensive stability.
Of course, such a change would affect the shape of the attacking lineup. Specifically, it’s Mesut Özil who may have to be repositioned, perhaps on the right of midfield with an out-of-form Ángel Di María dropping out. He is no stranger to this position either, having featured there 14 times this season to wonderful effect, scoring 1 goal and assisting 5.
All in all, Nuri Şahin would have no difficulty breaking into the Real Madrid first team when fit and given the talent in his locker as well as the fact that the position alongside Xabi Alonso is relatively up for grabs, it may not be long until he does so. He certainly has the creative ability and the fact that he has impressed on the bigger Champions League stage despite never gracing the competition before shows he has a strong mentality as well.
Mourinho likes him, so much so that Şahin said the Portuguese manager told him personally that ‘he wanted him at Real Madrid.’ So despite speculation that points to the contrary, Şahin may well be given more time to fulfil the potential everyone knows he has.
Indeed, he will come good for the club and given the low cost of his transfer, he will also prove to be one of Real Madrid’s best ever bargains amongst a plethora of costly ‘galacticos.’
*- Stats courtesy of whoscored.com