The Bundesliga returned last weekend, and in the process welcomed back its player of the year from two seasons ago. Nuri Sahin’s failure to flourish after leaving Germany is a surprise. Whether it says more about him or the coaching he received during his sojourn is something we may be about to find out.
Sahin is no stranger to strong coaches. After all, his excellent spell as the driving force of Borussia Dortmund’s rise to the top of the German game was achieved under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp, an idealogue who is no shrinking violet. Yet once he left Klopp’s domain, neither Jose Mourinho or Brendan Rodgers were able to get anything like the best out of him.
To be fair to Sahin and The Special One, untimely injuries didn’t aid his time at the Bernabeu: he managed just 24 minutes in La Liga before the winter break last season.
Mourinho’s treatment of him wasn’t terribly helpful either though. The Portuguese auteur’s recent adventures in the world of man management hardly reveal a man who prefers a softly-softly approach, as Sergio Ramos, Mezut Ozil, Iker Casillas and most recently Cristiano Ronaldo have been very publicly put down.
In comparison Sahin certainly didn’t have much to complain about. However, Mourinho clearly didn’t have much trust in the Turkish midfielder, and wasn’t looking to fast track him into his side when he was fit. He only got as far as the bench for a quarter of the side’s matches, and Mourinho’s persistent pursuit of Luca Modric showed that he wasn’t about to give Sahin a run in the team.
Mourinho’s eagerness to offload him on loan last Summer spoke volumes, despite Sahin declaring at the end of June:
“Since I arrived here, it has been like living a dream.
“It is one of the best clubs in the world and for this reason I do not see why I should go. I have no intention of leaving.”
Perhaps Mourinho detected complacency in such talk from a player who wasn’t getting pitch time, or maybe he wanted to see Sahin firing on all cylinders somewhere else before trusting him in his own team. Whatever the reason, it was clear he was surplus to requirements at the Bernabeu and he ended up decamping to Liverpool.
Like Mourinho, Rodgers is not a man to hide his light under a bushel. Anyone who announces “I am not a magician” wants one of two things from his audience: sympathy or a resounding chorus of “Oh yes you are!” Rodgers clearly hopes for the latter.
Rodgers made the claim this month in drawing attention to his much-vaunted ability to get the best out of his players. There’s a great deal more than mere self-aggrandisement in that statement: he’s rather immodestly put his finger on the main factor in the rise of his reputation. Rodgers is an excellent coach, and certainly does improve players. The performance of his Swansea side is evidence of this: while he built on sound foundations, clearly this was a squad performing above and beyond its pedigree.
Equally, there’s a great deal of validity to his claim that he has made the most of the lot he inherited at Anfield by improving the players at his disposal after the transfer window slammed shut on his fingers as he tried to pull a striker through:
“It is all about the materials….I will be able to improve players – that is my work and I have confidence in that. If I look at the first six months, I believe there has been improvement in a lot of the players.
“I will be able to rinse everything that I possibly can out of them, but the bottom line is about talent. If you don’t initially have that then it can be difficult. That is also why I was brought in here, because we will get talents and we will try to maximise what we can out of players.
“You look at Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and José Enrique since the start of the season and we have added value back to them. Absolutely. That is the job of the manager and the coach, as well as winning games.”
That’s not the full story though. His failure to live up to the billing he has created for himself with Sahin, probably the most promising raw material he had at the club, is genuinely surprising.
Sahin seemed a perfect fit for Rodgers’ philosophy. A busy midfield anchor man, adept at keeping the ball moving and reading the game intelligently. Snatching him from Madrid looked like a coup for a coach able to get the most out of his charges. But it didn’t happen.
Sahin’s pitch time was limited, his arrival in close proximity to a similar player in Joe Allen, who was Rodgers’ protege and most expensive Summer indulgence, baffling.
When Sahin got onto the pitch he showed snatches of his passing range but he tended to be restricted to low profile games, amounting essentially to a match winning performance against WBA in the Capital One Cup and some moderate Europa League performances.
Furthermore, he was often utilised in an attacking midfield position, and told Liverpool’s official website:
“I’ve played my whole career deeper and that’s my position,” said the 24-year-old. “But I have also played as a No.10 here. It was new for me but I tried to help the team and do my best.
“But if I could choose a position it would be holding as I feel more comfortable playing deeper.”
Those comments came in the context of a positive interview on the challenges of adapting to a new league, but soon German paper Sportsbild were claiming darker realities, of betrayal, lies and jealousy.
“Şahin has been betrayed at Liverpool because coach Brendan Rodgers lied to him when he signed, telling him that he would be the club’s number six.
“Steven Gerrard is said to have also been jealous of Sahin, and when they played together, Sahin barely got the ball.”
These sentiments weren’t direct quotes, but before long the article’s claim that he was returning to Dortmund came true.
Some of the comments coming out of the Westfalenstadion following Sahin’s return made you wonder if he was ever going to prosper once he strayed from the nest. Indeed, he seemed reluctant to go to Madrid in the first place, even announcing he was inviting Borussia’s playing and coaching staff plus the general manager to the Classico the following season!
“I am delighted to be back home. My contact with the bosses, the players and the coaching team of Dortmund has never broken down over these last 18 months.”
Perhaps Sahin has been misunderstood by two of the game’s most modern coaches and renowned motivators. Perhaps his injury means he’s not quite the player he was. Perhaps he simply can’t settle down away from home.
And perhaps Borussia, their high energy pressing game draining their thin squad’s resources as they look to compete on two fronts, have pulled off the European transfer coup of the season. I wonder if Klopp will take Sahin with him back to the Bernabeu this Summer!