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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Hleb Today, Gone Tomorrow

It’s been a difficult couple of years for Alexander Hleb. Just 36 appearances (most as a sub), no goals and a season on loan at Stuttgart indicate that all has not gone to plan for the Belarusian at the Camp Nou since July 2008. It’s a dramatic fall from form and first-choice status at the Emirates. What happened?

Prior to his Barcelona move, Hleb was deeply unsettled. Publicly blasting Wenger first and Fabregas second for their ‘ideas about football’ and ‘selfishness’ respectively ensured that he would be leaving Arsenal, but it’s not as if he did so in particularly dreadful form. He was a consistent performer for the Gunners and though not prolific enough in front of goal to rival Eto’o, Henry or Messi, he was certainly technically able enough to complement a midfield containing Xavi and Iniesta.

Guardiola signed him on a four-year contract, with a staggering 90m euro buyout clause part of the deal. It seemed a great move for Hleb, then aged 27 and in the widely recognised ‘peak years’ of his career and a decent investment by Barcelona. It was, however, an investment in only five league starts.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to get into a midfield containing Xavi, Iniesta, Yaya Toure and Sergio Biscuits, but Hleb was barely used and faded from Guardiola’s plans almost as quickly as he’d left Arsenal and pitched up in Catalunya. His receipt of Champions League and La Liga medals in Barcelona’s treble year was more a sobering realisation than euphoric celebration. They weren’t worth that much when he wasn’t playing any football.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his confidence and form was affected by such a sporadic season. But even upon arrival, the noises he was making didn’t suggest a man chock full of self-belief. “I cannot speak for me”, he said, when asked what he would bring to Barcelona. “…It is better that people and the coach talk about me”. Commendable modesty maybe, but they’re not talking about him anymore.

Arsene Wenger’s knack of moving a player on at the right time appeared to have surfaced again. Hleb’s second season as a Barcelona player saw the first of his loan deals take him back to the club from which Wenger signed him, VfB Stuttgart. He scored once, in a Champions League qualifier away against FC Timişoara, in Romania, got five assists and left under something of a cloud, subbed off in nine consecutive Bundesliga fixtures and complaining that, “I do not know what he [Christian Gross, the Stuttgart manager] expects from me, but I have a problem with him”.

Hleb returned to Barcelona as little more than a bargaining chip. Barca, indicating that he was no longer part of Guardiola’s plans, were clearly keen to offload him, but not without recouping some of his transfer fee. Presumably they slapped a market value on him and he failed to either pique interest as a permanent signing or as a makeweight in any part-exchange deal. Another loan deal fast became the only option.

The peak years for which Hleb was signed are now nearly over, and he recently expressed regret at ever leaving Arsenal. Taking a chance on Birmingham City and getting himself back into the Premier League should be a shot in the arm for the Belarusian, especially as he is remembered fairly fondly there having slipped under the radar the last two years. Birmingham fans will give him the benefit of the doubt, but it seems the biggest person in need of convincing is Hleb himself. Injury deprived him of a debut for the Blues against Liverpool, but while that will undoubtedly come, his unhappy time as a Barcelona player has generated hurt that requires more lengthy treatment.

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