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.