Aliaksandr Hleb – Where does he fit in?

On the deadline day of the latest transfer window, Birmingham City pulled off one of the most audacious transfers of the window by signing Belarusian midfielder Aliaksandr Hleb.

The ex-Arsenal man has joined the Blues on a 12-month loan deal from Spanish champions Barcelona after a stuttering spell in Spain.

After a couple of seasons at Highbury, where he moved from Stuttgart in 2005, Hleb moved to the Nou Camp for a fee of 17million Euro’s.

An indifferent spell at the Catalan giants yielded only eight La Liga starts and Hleb returned to Stuttgart on a season-long loan. He returned to Barca the following season and rejected reported offers from Liverpool and Spurs to sign for Blues.

Background work, done. Now, to my point.

Hleb is undoubtedly a fantastic signing for Blues, but where does he fit into our team?

His talent is undisputable, a fact enhanced by personal glowing references from Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger at his Work Permit hearing. But, i’m unsure as to where he can slot into a Blues team that is resolute and hard to beat, although he would fit in with our passing style that Alex McLeish has instilled.

At Arsenal, his preferred position was in the hole, behind Robin van Persie. Unfortunately for us, we don’t have anyone quite on his level at St. Andrew’s, and if we even contemplate playing a sole striker than the fans will turn on McLeish immediately.

If he was to play in his preferred position, who would we play up top? Would we play Zigic and risk being greeted by a high defensive line and no-one with the ability to get in behind? Cameron Jerome, although many fans will disagree, has lead the line well on his own in the past and has all the attributes needed to play the lone ranger. His pace means defences cannot push too high, but when he plays alone up front, we often leave him far too isolated. Hleb would need to stay within a reasonable distance to Jerome and look to slip him in as often as possible.

So, if we play a 4-4-2 formation than where would Hleb start? Centre-midfield is being contested between Craig Gardner, who picked up our Player of the Month award this week, Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer, meaning a centre-midfield place is almost out of the question. A role in the middle with only one partner would not be suited to Hleb, or for that matter, Blues, as we would almost certainly be over-run in a crucial part of the pitch.

Meaning we must play him on either wing. On the right, where Hleb played a lot of his football for Arsenal, we have Sebastian Larsson, an out-and-out winger. During his time on the right flank for the Gunners, Hleb would often be found wandering inside and allowing Sagna or Eboue to overlap him. Stephen Carr, for all his endeavour, doesn’t have the legs for that role anymore which means that Hleb’s drifting inside would make us too narrow and susceptible to play down our right-hand side. Also, Hleb is not an out-and-out winger, and whilst his dribbling may be better than Larsson’s, his crossing is not.

This now leaves only the left-hand side of midfield available for the Belarusian. This spot is seemingly up for grabs with the arrivals of Chilean winger Jean Beausajour and young Spaniard Enric Valles adding competition to James McFadden.

McFadden has come in for criticism recently from fans as they feel he doesn’t track back enough to help out the defence, something we can’t really expect Hleb to do either. I would personally be more comfortable seeing Hleb on the left of a four-man midfield than the right, as this allows him to dip inside onto his favoured right foot and float between the lines of midfield and defence of the opposition. Liam Ridgewell has been transformed at left-back and can often be found marauding down the flank, meaning that we would keep our width if Hleb was to cut inside.

However, this would make us hugely vulnerable to a counter-attack down that flank, meaning Barry Ferguson and his partner in the middle would need to be cautious of this and maybe slot in at left-back if Ridgewell was to bomb on.

So, whilst there can be no disputing Hleb’s ability or the magnitude of the coup it is for the club, we must be careful that his arrival is positive and that we are not trying to find a position that doesn’t exist for him.

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16 comments

  1. Nikos

    Fantastic article and insight. The fascinating thing for me will be how Alex aims to fit Hleb Beausajour and Larsson into the same side – largely impossible as you suggest but as with United (with Park Giggs Valencia Nani) strength in depth is always a good thing.

    Derbyshire too could be a real coup given time in the team; That said, his ability to come on and change a game from the bench was a real asset for Olympiakos, scoring something like 8 goals in 10 appearances as a sub….

  2. _WhiteLineFever

    What McLeish must desperately avoid is compromising his settled system for Hleb rather than finding a place for Hleb in the system.

    Birmingham are not a team of sparkling individual talents and built the success of last season on a ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ ideology. And let’s face it, Hleb coming to Brum is as much about his slide as the club’s success.

    He’s had two awful seasons considering what an integral player he was at Arsenal and is in his 30th year. He SHOULD be extremely useful and add that extra bit of craft but McLeish shouldn’t hang too much on him.

    Also interesting what you say about Jerome. Watched him against Man City at St Andrews last season and he was dire! Little committment. Then again Chucho was a big threat so I guess it shows that wasn’t the best game to judge people on! Great shame he didn’t make it.

  3. Uanhoro James

    I just though it through. Can Birmingham afford to have an Ozil style number 10 who doesn’t do any job on the most withdrawn midfielder. Can McLeish afford to have Hleb running between the lines as an outlet without him doing a job on Paul Scholes against United. Can he afford to give Hleb the ignore me at your own peril role which I think Hleb can do that but can McLeish afford it. If he can’t afford it, if he can’t impose Hleb on the team by making his opposition reactive, I think Hleb should just be stuck on the wings. It’s all about cost.

  4. Chris Quinn

    Jaymeetee and Uanhoro. I do think that the 4-2-3-1 could work, just a bit apprehensive about Zigic being the sole man. Hleb, Beausajour and Larsson would really need to push on to make it work.

    • Uanhoro James

      Not Zigic, Jerome. He did well last season. I think he’s a bit like Asamaoh Gyan. You get what I mean. He’s big and fast. He can be quite a handful on his own. He has good movement so can work two defenders at once and he can be brilliant. Okay I just described a superman but he clearly is not. I am just stating his good qualities and with faith and trust in him, he can become really good. And playing a 4-4-2 against such a team (Germany style for front two Hleb-Jerome) like how I explained would be suicidal unless a midfielder is made an anchorman and a striker is deep-lying.

      • chrisquinn3

        Oh, no. Don’t get me started on Asamoah Gyan as i’m not his biggest fan anyway – but that’s a different matter.

        It’s good to get a neutral’s perspective on Jerome – he comes in for a lot of flak, in my eyes unjust, from his own fans but he always gives 110%, making him good for the lone ranger role.

        I’m not a fan of Hleb in the hole as i don’t think he possess the finishing ability to play that role. Chances will inevitably come his way, and I would rather have a striker there than him. His outstanding attributes are his vision, passing and dribbling – these need to be utilised in a way that doesn’t compromise and undermine the foundations we have worked so hard on laying these past years.

    • Uanhoro James

      Zigic is good alright but I don’t get the signing. If it’s a 4231, I don’t see how it would work considering Hleb isn’t a particularly good finisher or a withdrawn forward. Jerome is quite big and with training can become the target man + Fast striker. Think of Gyan

  5. Jaymeetee

    I think the long term plan is zigic up top and hleb in the hole, this isn’t too much of a problem as long as the wingers and a central player offer threats in behind. Be great to see the new Chilean bursting down the left with Craigy Gardner breaking the line from midfield and getting in the box and scoring goals. Exciting problem to have though!

    • Roberticus

      Agree w 4-2-3-1; Beausejour is too attacking and skillful to be wasted in a 4-4-2, therefore place him closer to goal. Hleb (who is practically ambidexterous) could take the other advanced central or wide berth.

  6. Chris Quinn

    Hi Andy – thanks for contributing.
    I think I should have been a bit clearer with my description of what Carr is unable to do now. Whilst he does venture forward now, he only has to do this rarely due to Larsson hugging the line. At Arsenal, the full-backs had to be constantly up and down the pitch all game, something I don’t think Carr would be able to do now. His odd foray into the opposition half are useful now, but I don’t think we could expect anything more than the odd cameo from Carr now in the opposition half.

  7. Andy

    “Stephen Carr, for all his endeavour, doesn’t have the legs for that role”

    This is the only part of an otherwise great article that I disagree with, surely as Carr currrently overlaps with Larsson on a regular basis I can’t see why he couldn’t do that with Hleb.

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