Written by Tanmay Nayak.
Hamburg welcomed Borussia Dortmund to the Volkparkstadion in February 2014. After 90 minutes, the home team were already coasting to a victory when they received a free kick at the half line – a significant distance from the goal. So much so, BVB did not even bother putting up a wall… and then steps up Hamburg’s young No.9.
Those fortunate to watch the match, or the many videos that captured the moment that ensued after know who this player is. Those who have not yet, can simply watch the clip posted below.
With that goal, a 20-year-old Hakan Çalhanoğlu announced himself to the Bundesliga, to the world, and perhaps even to Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund manager at the time. Seven years since, there are rumours that the two may join hands – as per Calciomercato. These rumours, if true, can lead to something very promising.
Let us discuss why.
A free for a free
After five illustrious years with Liverpool, Gini Wijnaldum is set to move on to the next phase of his remarkable career. His impending departure has not left Liverpool’s midfield too short of options – the club currently has Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Fabinho, Thiago, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and Curtis Jones as part of the first team. However, a glance at the number of appearances posted by the above group in the past year does throw up a worrying figure.
Keita and Ox’s injury troubles are well documented. In the past year, Henderson, Thiago and Fabinho have each spent varying amounts of time in recovery. Jones, for all his immeasurable talent and maturity, still seems a little too green to slot in regularly into our controlled midfield. While the evergreen Milner, can simply not start regularly anymore. Wijnaldum however, was a regular feature throughout not only during this season, but during his entire time at Anfield. Replacing him does not seem to be an immediate priority, but it might just be.
Dejan Lovren’s departure left a hole in Liverpool’s squad, the size of which could never have been estimated at the start of the season. After a period of nine months and an ever-growing list of injured first team centre-backs, it becomes easy to ask ‘what if?’ What if the mercurial Croat had never left? What if the club had signed a replacement last season?
While neither of the above may have ensured the retention of the Premier League, they could have potentially arrested the club’s freefall from Christmas onwards. In a similar vein, it can be said that failing to replace the midfielder with the greatest number of minutes could prove to be fatal.
But how does Çalhanoğlu fit in here? His role for Milan is not the same as the one Gini played for Liverpool. A simple look at his heat map vs that of Gini’s shows the difference between the two.
Even when comparing the stats between the two, it becomes clear that Çalhanoğlu’s role is far more attacking, usually as the No.10 in a 4-2-3-1. Meanwhile, Gini’s evolution from an attacking midfielder at PSV and Newcastle to his more controlled role as part of a midfield trio at Liverpool was beautifully extolled by Klopp in his post-match interview at the season’s finale.
But does playing in a different role disqualify Çalhanoğlu from the chance of replacing Gini? Maybe not. A few interesting points jump out when comparing his stats to Gini’s. Not from this year, but the year he was at Newcastle.
|Wijnaldum, 2019/20||Wijnaldum, 2015/16||Çalhanoğlu, 2020/21|
When looking at the above stats, it does appear that Çalhanoğlu has a fairly similar profile to Wijnaldum while he was at Newcastle. And shows the same level of promise in key areas that could potentially help him transition to the role Gini has played in the Liverpool midfield over the past few years. At least on paper.
It must be pointed out that Çalhanoğlu played for a team that finished fourth in Serie A and conceded 41 goals this year. While Wijnaldum was playing for a squad that was relegated after conceding 58 goals in 2015-16. Thus, it could be argued that Çalhanoğlu on average has played against teams with a lower average quality while Gini had to contend with playing against teams that were on par or above in quality.
Another factor to consider is also the extent of pressing required from the midfield. Pioli’s Milan registered 154.2 pressures per 90 over the 2020/21 season, as per FBref. This is slightly above Liverpool’s 148.4 in the 2019/20 season, but the difference lies in the success rate. Liverpool are successful 32.2% on average while Milan is successful 29.4%. This brings their successful pressures over a 90 minute period to a comparable 47.7 vs 45.2. It can be said that both teams have the same level of intensity in pressing over a 90-minute period, though it can be argued that Liverpool on average have more possession of the ball. When comparing the two players in this aspect, Gini registered 15 pressures per 90 with a success rate of 32.7%, while Çalhanoğlu registered 13.8 pressures per 90 with a success rate of 30.7%. Whether his numbers may improve or not in a more effective pressing unit can only be guessed at, but it is quite certain that he can press.
All in all, Çalhanoğlu’s stats reflect a player who could fit into the role played by Gini in the team for the past five years.
A low-block killer
Another factor that adds to Çalhanoğlu’s attractiveness is his ability from direct freekicks. Since the start of the 2013/14 season till December 2020, only Lionel Messi has scored more goals (36) than Çalhanoğlu (18) in such situations. This includes a spectacular 2015/16 season where he scored nine goals from direct freekicks for Bayer Leverkusen.
18 – Since the start of the 2013/14 season, only Lionel Messi (36) has scored more direct free-kicks in all competitions than Hakan Calhanoglu (18) among players in the top-five European leagues in that time. Specialist. pic.twitter.com/Sujpp8jHtJ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 3, 2020
Liverpool have lacked a true threat from dead ball situations since the times of Gerrard, Suarez and then Coutinho. While Trent Alexander-Arnold has definitely stepped up to the plate in the last two seasons, and will continue to grow into the role, the club could definitely do with another specialist.
Especially when dealing with clubs that prefer to sit back and absorb the pressure, the presence of a set piece threat can help unsettle their game plan. All of a sudden, the area 30 yards from goal becomes a no-foul zone for the opposition, a job easier said than done when dealing with the trickery of Salah and Mane. Tactical fouls begin to bear a much greater cost than what could have been anticipated.
The threat from direct freekicks has most certainly gone down in the Premier League, via SGAF. After an astonishing 39 in the 2013/14 season, the next six have yielded numbers of 27, 25, 27, 16, 23 and 26. It is difficult to pinpoint if this has come due to a change in defensive tactics or the loss of free kick specialists such as Yaya Toure over the years.
Çalhanoğlu’s presence could help give Liverpool another tool to deal with opposition who would halt the team from scoring in open play, and provide the edge required to dismantle their tactics.
Money, money, money
While the previous two factors pointed to Çalhanoğlu’s suitability from a footballing standpoint, the last one will cover his commercial viability.
First, his wages. Calhanoğlu currently earns a net €2.5 million (£2.1 million) per season on a contract that runs until this summer. According to a recent article by MilanNews, the player has been offered a new contract worth a net €4 million until 2024, but is looking to sign one worth €6 million, as reported by our friends over at SempreMilan. This has posed a problem for Milan, since the only two players to earn above that grade are Zlatan Ibrahimovic (€6.5 million) and Gianluigi Donnarumma (€7 million). Thus, the contract talks are at an impasse, and it is becoming more and more likely that Çalhanoğlu will exit Milan on a free transfer when the window opens in July.
In comparison, let us look at Liverpool’s payroll table, via Spotrac.
|Player||Annual Salary (in pounds)|
|Mohamed Salah||10.4 million|
|Roberto Firmino||9.36 million|
|Virgil Van Dijk||9.36 million|
|Alisson Becker||7.8 million|
|Jordan Henderson||7.28 million|
|James Milner||7.28 million|
|Naby Keita||6.24 million|
|Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain||6.24 million|
|Sadio Mane||5.2 million|
Signing Çalhanoğlu on his wage demands would by no means break Liverpool’s payroll structure. When comparing it against Wijnaldum’s salary at Liverpool of £4.68 million, it becomes fairly clear that Çalhanoğlu represents an ideal replacement for the departing Dutchman in more ways than one.
Additionally, in a window where the club is not expected to spend too heavily, the signing of Çalhanoğlu could help reallocate funds for other critical areas of need. There are other players whose names are being touted, such as Leicester’s Tielemans, who has recently been linked with a move to Liverpool. But the prices being quoted for the midfielder could certainly reduce Liverpool’s chances of buying a quality option in attack this summer. Çalhanoğlu’s availability on a free transfer just adds to the allure that the midfielder already has.
And lastly, nationality. In recent years, Liverpool have demonstrated a proclivity for acquiring talent from diverse regions. The signings of Takumi Minamino (Japan) and Kostas Tsimikas (Greece) were highlighted as much for their ability on the pitch as for the commercial success they would bring to the club in their home countries, as reported by SportPro Media. Çalhanoğlu’s nationality, Turkey, is by no means a stranger to Liverpool. Istanbul has been home to one of the club’s greatest successes of all time, if not in the modern era. However, outside of loan deals for Nuri Sahin and most recently, Ozan Kabak, the nation has had next to no representation in the club in the past decade. And with Liverpool choosing not to pursue the option of buying Kabak after a decent half season on loan, as per Fabrizio Romano, signing Çalhanoğlu could strengthen their foothold in the Turkish market.
The above points reflect that Çalhanoğlu could be a very good signing for Liverpool, at least on paper. Whether the club signs the player, and he performs at the level expected, only time will tell. It is also possible that the club’s rumoured interest in the player could have been manufactured by his representatives in a last-ditch effort to bump up his salary.
But in the meantime, this is a rumour that I think fans should be excited about.