Meet the Leverkusen livewire who could solve Manchester United's wing crisis
BELLARABI IN 2014/15
- Bundesliga (24 apps, 9 goals, 5 assists)
- Champions League (9 apps, 1 goal, 3 assists)
- DFB-Pokal (2 apps, 0 goals, 2 assists)
It’s no secret that Manchester United are set for another busy summer. Despite the marquee acquisitions of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao at the start of the current campaign, Louis van Gaal’s side have still struggled to impress consistently, and another overhaul of the squad is widely expected.
And while United may look to break the bank once again as they did with Di Maria, one of the players they are reportedly interested in could come at a much more reasonable price. The Premier League club are apparently poised to trigger the £11 million release clause in the contract of Bayer Leverkusen winger Karim Bellarabi.
Though he may not be a household name on English shores yet, the Germany international could be just what United's attacking unit needs to bring back pace and imagination.
The 24-year-old has been absolutely crucial to Leverkusen’s Bundesliga and Champions League campaigns, starting every match in both competitions.
Bellarabi is Bayer’s top scorer in the Bundesliga with nine goals – a career best – and his increasingly impressive displays have earned him not one but two contract extensions this season. Not bad for a player who spent last term on loan with relegated Eintracht Braunschweig. But that is not likely to deter the interest of United, and if they were to secure his services it could be an exciting and financially viable deal.
Karim of the crop
As stated, Bellarabi has been central to the attacking philosophy of Roger Schmidt at the BayArena. His rapid development was evident from the start of the season, as Leverkusen recorded a surprise 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park on the opening day. Bellarabi scored the fastest goal in German top-flight history, netting after just nine seconds to lay down an immediate marker for the season.
The winger’s confidence was further illustrated the following game, wrapping up a 4-2 victory over Hertha Berlin with a fine volley. His goal was well taken, but his overall attacking contributions are what really stood out in that game. His 8 shots were more than any other player on the pitch, with 4 on target.
In addition, his 5 completed take-ons were also the most of anyone on the pitch – indeed, his unremitting desire to drive attacks and beat his man is a refreshing element of his style.
It is exactly this goalscoring threat and attacking impetus that Manchester United could use from wide areas. Bellarabi’s stats tower above United’s current widemen, particularly those of Di Maria.
The out-of-form Argentine’s Old Trafford career hit a nadir in a recent game against Sunderland, when he was substituted at half-time after an erratic performance on the right wing (Bellarabi’s favoured position).
United’s record signing was wayward with his passing, completing just 16 out of 23 efforts. Furthermore, Di Maria failed to find a team-mate once when he passed into the penalty area, a stark indication of United’s current dearth of quality on the flanks.
In contrast, Bellarabi consistently provides quality from wide areas for Leverkusen and the five assists he has recorded this season shows a player who boasts creativity as well as goalscoring prowess.
Against Hannover in November, the German was man-of-the-match in a 3-1 victory for Bayer. The Berliner made more attacking-third passes (19) than any other player, completing a reasonable 13. Given the nature of his passes – mostly killer balls in search of a goal – the imperfect rate was perhaps to be expected.
Meanwhile, he completed 4/7 attempted take-ons and got himself a goal to cap a standout display. The winger also completed the most ball recoveries (10) to show another hard-working dimension to his game.
If Manchester United fans are sceptical about Bellarabi’s suitability for the big stage, they only need to cast their eyes over the player’s debut for Germany. Joachim Low thought highly enough of the winger to hand him his first international cap against rivals Poland in October's Euro 2016 qualifier.
"Bellarabi has earned his chance after several outstanding performances for his club," said Low. "He is very strong in one-on-one situations and an outstanding alternative for our attack."
Although Germany lost, Bellarabi's display was viewed as one of the few positives. Low said: "For his first game, his commitment was incredible. He was incredibly active and involved. I was happy with him."
Bellarabi has since harnessed the confidence gained from breaking into the world champions’ first team to continue his progression at Leverkusen. Schmidt’s men have been one of the most attractive sides to watch in the Bundesliga this season, and several of their matches have produced goal-fests.
Last month they played out a stunning nine-goal thriller with Wolfsburg, where they were edged out 5-4 by Dieter Hecking’s team. Bellarabi was a silver lining for the defeated side, though, as he sparkled in attack for Bayer with a goal, assist and 8/11 take-ons completed.
United need Bellarabi’s consistency and prowess from the wing, as Adnan Januzaj’s future at Old Trafford looks evermore uncertain. After bursting through under David Moyes, the Belgian winger has struggled to establish himself under new boss Van Gaal. In United’s 1-1 draw at West Ham in February, the 20-year-old looked a player desperately short on confidence before being substituted after 72 minutes.
With Van Gaal’s widemen lacking confidence and consistent quality, United would be wise to pursue Bellarabi in the summer. His relentless improvement under Schmidt at Leverkusen is impossible to ignore, with his dribbling, creativity and goals making him one of the hottest properties in European football.
Simply, he's a little bit of something United don't have right now – and well worth the investment.