Saturday, 12 January 2013

Sahin as a Non-Starter was a Non-Starter

In the days following Liverpool's 0-3 thrashing at the Hawthorns on the opening day of the Premier League season, I suffered something of a psychological crisis.

"Philosophy. Philosophy? Fil....oss...offy... ... ... philosophy?" Is it a real word? It didn't sound real anymore. Not even in a pensive Northern Irish accent. I began to panic. Was I ill? I was trying to make sense of it all, so I googled 'Rodgers' philosophy' and it returned with 5.1 million results. Crisis temporarily averted. 

After 11 weeks of being battered to within an inch of my sanity by the 'p' word, Brendan Rodgers completed a signing that seemed a perfect match for his much trumpeted ph...way of playing. If Joe Allen had followed his Swansea manager to Anfield in order to help us 'rest with the ball' then the month-long scrap with Arsenal for the temporary signing of Nuri Sahin was designed to ensure Liverpool's opponents would never sleep. 

There were few concerns over the Turkish midfielder's inability to hold down a regular place at Real Madrid, as if you're going to be second in the quarterback pecking order, you may as well be behind the world's best in that position, Xabi Alonso, at the peak of his powers. And it was with the Spaniard in mind that Liverpool fans reacted so positively to Sahin's arrival, finally filling the void left by a player who could provide the ideal balance between function and finesse, and that final 'pass before the pass' that Gerrard and Torres fed off so frighteningly in 08-09. 

Such is Sahin's talent, and with Alonso's contractual situation in Madrid uncertain, Jose Mourinho was never willing to entertain a permanent deal, and yet five months and 12 games later, he's had his loan spell cut short by a club who've yet to beat a team in the top half of of the weakest Premier League division in a decade.

And Liverpool, for once, got it absolutely spot on.

For Sahin to be a Liverpool player on a permanent basis, the team would need such a stunning season that it would make us the preferred destination to working with Mourinho and Ronaldo at the La Liga champions, while Sahin's own impressive performances would only drive the fee up and attract more Champions League suitors in any case. It was hard to imagine this would be anything other than a fleeting visit, to be enjoyed while we could. Sahin's impact had to be instant and sustained over the season, for him to be worth the temporary outlay on considerable wages, on top of the initial loan fee. If all things went well and Sahin could help elevate the club to match his own expectations, to the point where he'd demand a long-term move, then that'd be a terrific, if unlikely bonus. 

This wasn't a player Rodgers had brought in to develop, in the way he yesterday suggested to the media that made him the standout candidate for the Liverpool job in June. He claims to have given "added value" to players such as Henderson, Downing and Enrique, though it wasn't completely clear whether he meant that as a footballing or financial one. Sahin's value over the course of his loan deal would be judged in Liverpool's final position in May, and nothing more. But by January. Liverpool had no choice but to cut short the deal, to the disappointment of many who see him as a rare spark of genuine class within our thin squad.

For all the emphasis on an aesthetically pleasing style of play there is no room for luxury in a Rodgers setup. Sahin may have been earmarked as a creator supreme, but he would still have to adapt to a scientific approach in the three-man midfield, requiring the flexibility to help the team keep the ball higher up the pitch. He should be a cog in the machine rather than its focal point from deep, a role which Rodgers preferred Allen to fill in the absence of Lucas, providing defensive protection and simple, slick, high-percentage distribution.

Its obscenely simple to suggest Sahin failed to adapt to English football, as will doubtlessly be the narrative in the English press. Rather, and more surprisingly, he failed to adapt to Rodgers' style with the immediacy he had expected and as such, was worthless to the club by January. With Lucas, a more studious, suitable holding player, regaining full fitness gradually, and with the experienced Gerrard showing class is permanent, Sahin had not been able to find his niche as Liverpool's roving, reliable talent, to the extent that Rodgers has compromised the fitness of his favourite, Allen, over the past three months. Jonjo Shelvey has had more games than expected too, while when Liverpool needed additional industry in midfield at West Ham, Raheem Sterling proved more than capable coming in-field from the wing, dovetailing with the makeshift striker when carving out Joe Cole's equaliser.

Shelvey is far from the finished product, and his long-term future at the club is not certain, with the next  five months likely to tell Rodgers whether or not he will consider cashing in come the summer. But it is not worth compromising the development of a player who has a value under a permanent contract, with one that hasn't, if the latter isn't going to deliver consistently excellent performances in any position which he is selected. Sahin had not found a way to become indispensable, and while progress is undoubtedly being made in a less tangible way than points, Sahin would have to be last in, first out, despite being a potential match winner on any given day.

A broken nose at Udinese didn't help, but by that stage Rodgers would've been hoping to rest the Turk on Europa League Thursdays, from dominating Premier League midfields at weekends. A series of struggles in autumn did for Sahin, perhaps understandably in the unique Merseyside Derby environment, but tellingly amongst Roberto Di Matteo's buffet-style midfield at Stamford Bridge, where the Mata-Oscar-Hazard dream-team left gaps for Sahin to help himself. Visibly aching to receive the ball from a centre back, observe the spaces and experiment with his passing range, Sahin suffered with his back to goal over the half way line in particular, where there wasn't the opportunity to roll the ball out to his left hand side and play expansively, with strict demands on him to ensure the team were able to control the game in their opponent's half.

By the time he hinted that he wasn't willing to adapt to the subtle nuances of a midfield role under Rodgers, the decision had already been made - and it was likely that his lack of motivation had already translated in his day-to-day work earlier in the spell. But his complaints only further justified the club's decision to cut short what was a correct, calculated gamble, and an equally correct early dismissal. 

The odds are heavily stacked in favour of Sahin having a great career at the top level, and he will almost certainly slot seamlessly back into the Bundesliga, and into Klopp's delightful Dortmund team. But any suggestions Liverpool wasted his talent, or would've regretted letting him go early, will be wide of the mark. Liverpool's recent track record in transfer windows may make them easy pickings, but by following the signing of Sturridge with this brave decision to send Sahin home early, Rodgers and FSG are going some way to showing they are learning from mistakes, and adding a ruthless streak to our dealings that was badly lacking in previous years. 

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