The Curious Case of Ibrahim Afellay

As we enter the business end of the season, the matches are starting to come fast and furious. It was a great weekend for Barcelona, as we took care of business away at Sevilla and Madrid uncharacteristically dropped points at home (thank you Cazorla!) With Madrid’s lead cut to 8 points and 9 11 (man I’m really off form lately) games left to play a glimmer of hope has been twinkling in many culé’s eyes. Some are saying that Madrid has peaked too early, and has some difficult Liga fixtures nestled near a possible Champions League semifinal against Bayern. But with Granada on the horizon it is essential to remember that nothing has really changed, Madrid is in control of the title race and all Barcelona can do is win all our matches and hope. The important issue is where can Barcelona look for a spark to propel them through the final stages of the season?

The story of a player returning from injury and spurring their team to victory is a classic one, and we’ve seen it in varying forms over the last several seasons. Iniesta made a miraculous return for the Champions League final in 2009, and despite playing injured, he played a very important role in securing the treble. More recently Abidal returned from surgery last season and played some of the best football of his Barcelona career. It culminated with him lifting the Champions League trophy – a testament not to his sparkling form, but to his strength and calm in the face of personal adversity that he infused in the team. Iniesta and Abidal came back from their injuries with renewed hunger for the game and, although in different ways, their return was a huge lift to the team at the end of the season.

ACL tears are often fixed with a graft of the patellar or hamstrings tendon

It may seem somewhat of a surprise then that the news of Afellay’s return to training this week was met with the equivalent of a nihilistic sigh. ACL injuries are notoriously difficult to return from and he is probably still weeks away from featuring in a match, maybe that is why his return wasn’t greeted with more fanfare.  Then again, Afellay is different from Iniesta and Abidal as he wasn’t an essential part of the team when he was injured. He played 29 matches after his winter transfer last season and was an essential pair of legs coming down the stretch, even though many of his appearances were as substitutions. A goal in the final Liga match gave culés a bit of a tease and excitement about what he could bring next season. He was undoubtedly a part of Guardiola’s plans for the future as he appeared in the Champions League final; ahead of a certain Bojan if I may add.

Despite his role last season, there still seems to be questions surrounding Afellay’s best position. He played most of his matches last season on the wing. Although he’s played there in the past some of his best performances for PSV before he came to Barcelona were as a defensive midfielder. Even when he was playing on the wing he had a tendency to drop deep and central to receive the ball and he is a much better player when facing goal than with his back to goal – both tendencies that would indicate he may be a better attacking midfielder than winger/wide forward. Compare him to Sanchez (who has been a revelation at forward this season) and we see that instead of creating width, pulling defenders out of position, and stretching the defense Afellay is more comfortable dropping slightly deeper and dictating play.

This of course isn’t a knock against Afellay, as he has an interesting mix of skills. He can beat a man on the dribble even though the end line always seemed to sneak up on him, another indication he may be better in midfield. He’s an intelligent player around the box, and unleashed some long range rockets from outside the box last season. In all he has the skills to provide Barcelona with a little something different, it’s just a question of how to harness his qualities to maximally benefit the team. As a side note that’s another of his great qualities, he is a humble fellow and is versatile enough to play different positions for the team.

He also has this weird half smile

Unfortunately Afellay has a lot of hurdles to overcome in addition to returning to fitness and the mental difficulty of returning from such a serious injury. By now you probably realize I think his best position is in midfield, but our midfield is bursting with talent and it won’t be easy for him to find minutes there. On the other hand with Villa’s injury and Pedro’s injuries and poor form, Cuenca and Tello have been asked to play large roles in the squad. He may find more minutes taking the pressure off the young players and giving Sanchez a chance to rest. Unfortunately when he got injured he was still adjusting to playing in our system, and specifically to playing on the wing in our system. There is a danger that he has been left behind in tactical adjustments Pep has made throughout the season, and he will need to start adjusting all over again.

A major responsibility also rests on Guardiola to find a way to use him tactically that both takes advantage of Afellay’s strengths and helps the team. Luckily I’m more often reassured than worried when something is relying on Guardiola. Iniesta has been playing a role where he shuttles between left midfield and left wing, perhaps Afellay could play that role and free Iniesta up in the middle? Just a thought, I’m no Euler and I’m quickly getting out of my depth here.

For Barcelona to continue to win games and finish the season strong the team is going to need players to step up and play beyond themselves. Despite almost an entire season on the sideline and the other hurdles in his way, if Afellay shows mental strength and Guardiola can fit him into the team he could still play an important (but small) role this season. It may be a lot to ask, but with a tough end of the season in sight we are going to need all our resources.


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  1. Srini
    March 19, 2012


    There are actually 11 games left. The glimmer added a few more pixels to itself 🙂

    Just to juxtapose who Barca and EE are going to face in the next 11 rounds apart from confirmed/possible Champs League fixtures and the CDR final-

    20-Mar Barcelona v Granada Estadio Camp Nou
    21-Mar Villarreal v Real Madrid Estadio El Madrigal
    24-Mar Mallorca v Barcelona Estadio Son Moix
    24-Mar Real Madrid v Real Sociedad Santiago Bernabéu
    27-Mar Apoel Nicosia v Real Madrid Neo GSP Stadium
    28-Mar AC Milan v Barcelona Giuseppe Meazza
    1-Apr Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao Camp Nou
    1-Apr Osasuna v Real Madrid Reyno de Navarra
    3-Apr Barcelona v AC Milan Camp Nou
    4-Apr Real Madrid v Apoel Nicosia Santiago Bernabéu
    8-Apr Real Zaragoza v Barcelona Estadio La Romareda
    8-Apr Real Madrid v Valencia Santiago Bernabéu
    11-Apr Barcelona v Getafe Camp Nou
    11-Apr Atlético Madrid v Real Madrid Vicente Calderon
    15-Apr Levante v Barcelona Ciudad de Valencia
    15-Apr Real Madrid v Sporting Gijon Santiago Bernabéu
    17-Apr* Real Madrid* v Bayern/Marseille
    18-Apr* Barcelona* v Chelsea/Benfica
    22-Apr Barcelona v Real Madrid Estadio Camp Nou
    22-Apr Barcelona v Real Madrid Estadio Camp Nou
    24-Apr Barcelona* v Chelsea/Benfica
    25-Apr Real Madrid* v Bayern/Marseille
    29-Apr Rayo Vallecano v Barcelona Campo Vallecas
    29-Apr Real Madrid v Sevilla FC Santiago Bernabéu
    2-May Barcelona v Málaga Camp Nou
    2-May Athletic Bilbao v Real Madrid San Mamés
    6-May Barcelona v Espanyol Camp Nou
    6-May Granada v Real Madrid Los Carmenes
    13-May Real Betis v Barcelona Manuel Ruiz de Lopera
    13-May Real Madrid v Mallorca Santiago Bernabéu
    25-May Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona Vicente Calderon

    Tough set of encounters for both teams. While Barca has the steeper path to climb, it is not going to be a cakewalk for EE.

    • March 19, 2012

      You mean Pathetico – Barca at the Calderon (last match day) 😛

      Definitely no cake-walk for EE, and they will surely drop a few points, but I fear we will be agonizingly close (in 2nd) come end of the season.

      Would be one hell of a clasico if the Liga did come down to the meeting at the Camp.

    • March 19, 2012

      Copa Del Rey Final .. We already played at the Calderon (2-1 Messi and Dani)

    • Srini
      March 19, 2012

      No, .. thats the CDR final at the Calderon against Bilbao.

      The equation is simple – Barca has to beat EE in the Camp Nou fixture and hope that EE atleast draws 3 more games than they do.

      Very very tough, but not close to impossible.

    • March 19, 2012

      Oops! How could I forget about the tantalizing CDR final against a great Bilbao.

      It’s either 3 more draws for EE OR one draw and a loss for a Camp Nou showdown.

  2. peoplez
    March 19, 2012

    Just gonna leave this here:
    “28-Mar AC Milan v Barcelona Giuseppe Meazza”
    Giuseppe Meazza is the name Inter Milan referrers the stadium to when they are playing. San Siro when AC Milan plays.

  3. blitzen
    March 19, 2012

    Nice piece, Calvin. I for one am very excited to see Afellay back in training. He will be an important option for the team in the latter stages of the CL.

    I agree that historically his best position has been in midfield. He was less effective when Pep played him on the wing, but IMO he was starting to adapt to playing there—most effectively when he made that gorgeous cross for Messi’s goal against RM. He is an intelligent player and I think he will be able to adapt his game to the way Pep wants to use him.

    Welcome back, Flyboy! 😀

    • ViscaCalifornia
      March 19, 2012

      I also respectfully disagree with Calvin that Afelley is best suited for the Barca midfield. Just as mentioned, his speed and athleticism shined against Los Blancos – as demonstrated by that cross to Messi. And, if I’m not mistaken he similarly outflanked other opponents as well… I just hope that he hasn’t lost a step due to injury.

  4. nzm
    March 19, 2012

    I think that this forced break for Afellay will have actually done him some good with the extra space created for him to:
    1. Learn Castellano more fluently, and
    2. Study the team tactics as they have developed over the season.

    At some stage, I’d be really excited to see a Thiago – Afellay combination feeding a 3 man front attack, with Busquets and Mascherano/Xavi playing behind them and with a 3 man backline.

    I think it would introduce some speed into the attack, and both Thiago and Afellay are more than competent at shooting from outside the box to score.

  5. nzm
    March 19, 2012

    Calvin – don’t forget about Puyol’s influence after his returns. I think that the capita’s input is huge, and the team performance is always lifted when Puyol’s on the pitch to give no mercy.

    • March 19, 2012

      Who could forget Puyol. His return from injury last season was also a huge factor, but this season he has been in and out of the squad all season. Wanted to write about Afellay because after missing almost the entire season he has become the forgotten man in the squad.

      I wish I could have written more definitively about how he will be able to help us down the stretch, and where he will fit in the future, but I really have no idea what the outcome will be.

  6. March 19, 2012

    I came here in hopes of seeing Afellay’s mug photoshopped on to Brad Pitt when he is born “old”.

  7. yassir (Formerly Extreme barca fan)
    March 19, 2012

    players coming back from lengthy injuries tend to not hit top form, usually they are slow and inconsistent, so I’m not expecting much from afellay, though i welcome him back with wide open arms.

    • March 19, 2012

      You make a good point, and I can’t deny it’s hard to see him coming in and playing the role of starting winger/wide forward for the rest of the season. I do think he can play a vital role coming off the bench – his uniqueness on the team means he could have a serious role to play at the end of a Liga game or a CL game where we are either desperately defending a lead or searching for a single goal. Not expecting him to play tons of minutes, but wouldn’t be surprised if a crucial moment of our season dropped at his feet and we need him to make a huge play.

  8. Helge
    March 19, 2012

    Some weeks ago, someone has mentioned a good Catalan online dictionary.
    Does somebody remember its name?

  9. March 19, 2012

    The real curious thing about Afellay is that he has this weird half smile and opposable thumbs.

    • messifan
      March 19, 2012

      They revised it? Kinda of wish they would keep old record.

  10. messifan
    March 19, 2012

    Good to see Afellay training again. Don’t know how much he’ll play but every contribution is vital considering our lack of depth. Also, I hope he makes it to Poland and Ukraine. Deeeeeeep down I want the Netherlands to win the Euros.

    For the game tomorrow, my prefer lineup would be:

    My subs would be Tello, Keita and Muniesa.

    I’m with Pep regarding our chances. I don’t think RM will drop 8 pts.
    We can only control what we can. It’s one game at a time and let’s win!

    • messifan
      March 19, 2012

      P.S. The game is at 4pm EST.

    • Ryan
      March 19, 2012

      Well, we can control 3 of their points at least. 🙂

    • Chiu
      March 19, 2012

      +1 person like this

    • March 19, 2012

      The real miracle on Saturday was Adriano not getting injured in 70 something minutes. A record in the colours, for sure.

      Like the lineup. Could see it happening too. My significantly less likely lineup would be:

      Alves – Pique – Puyol
      Thiago – Cesc – Busi – Keita
      Pedro – Messi – Cuenca

      Sub: Alexis (for Pedro), Mascherano (for Puyol) and either Muniesa or Tello.

      Might as well use a 3-4-3; rest Iniesta, Xavi, Adriano… give Cuenca, Keita, Thiago and Puyol run outs.

    • Chiu
      March 20, 2012

      I personally don’t want to take risk losing grip on this match by resting Xavi and Iniesta. Better they start the game, help to kill off the game soonest and be the first to be subbed in 2nd half.

  11. March 19, 2012

    Ibi will always have a special place in my heart after his super sub contribution against EE last season. Remember him taking Marcelo to school and back. Good times, good times.

    That said we haven’t really seen the “real” Ibi yet. He knows more Spanish and is adapted better so while he won’t come out of the figurative tracks gates running, he’ll be faster than he was before. If that makes any sense.

    • culegirl3
      March 19, 2012

      I get what you’re saying Kari.

      I’m hopeful that with time he will make a great contribution to the team just as he was starting to do last season.
      Here’s to hoping that he won’t have that sad “someone stepped on my puppy” look anymore! All I want to do is hug him and give him a cookie when the camera shows him in the stands.

    • March 19, 2012

      Yeah, it makes me want to do that too. Although he looks a bit morose to me. Alexis, on the other hand, is the one who looks like watching in the stands is causing him physical pain. And it probably is. 😀

    • t4f4dzw4
      March 20, 2012

      not much of an article, but I have not been into this blogging thing for very long. feedback is welcome

  12. Chiu
    March 20, 2012

    Mixed views:

    – Thanks Calvin for dedicating a post to welcome Affelay back. After a long injury hiatus, I also concur with people that his contribution wouldn’t be lots in the remaining games. With strings of experimentation that Pep undertake throughout and when all points now equally vital; it’s not easy to integrate him into current scheme seamlessly. He perhaps would be used occasionally to add different aspect and vary the dynamic of the match ala that CL semis.

    – I watched some our pre-season matches before Afellay get injured. I feel he worked hard during pre-season to impress Pep and fine-tune his game to fit Barca’s style. He deserves a chance to show his capacity next season. His directness, dribbling ala winger, the pace and long range shoot are something we would need in bag to complete our weaponry. I think he could be utilized in hybrid role between the winger and attacking midfielder. He could be a substitution either for Xaviniesta or any of our forward except Messi; depends on the need.

    – Abidal is still joining the training session while waiting for the transplant. What a steel man? His character and spirit during this hard time is exemplary to the whole world. The cancer or whatsoever the disease is will not be able to beat this creature. I’m grateful with the way Barcelona as an institution treat a committed team member like Abidal appropriately. Credit for Real Madrid and other teams (Sevilla, Bordeaux, etc) that expressing their heartfelt support to Abidal and Muamba in their respective ways and matches. #beyondfootball.

    – I’m confident Camp Nou wouldn’t let the 3 points slip off tonight. We would beat Granada and let the mental pressure creep on EE players until the kick off in El Madrigal. Villareal held us a draw during our bad form spell. It’s sensible too; to think they could do the equivalent to EE during their descending trend. Good luck for the Yellow Submarine and their new coach.

  13. Gogah
    March 20, 2012

    I had big hopes for Afellay when he joined us. Too bad that he hasn’t got the kind of momentum that is required to succeed in a loaded team like Barcelona.
    Hopefully he is healthy again and he can start the integrating process with a little more urgency. His assist to messi in the CL semis last year alone is enough to justify the 3M price we paid, judging by the importance of that game. But i know he can give more.

    He has a great shot.
    He has great dribbling skills.
    He can play in multiple positions.
    Personally because of the amount of talent we have in midfield and the injuries of villa and inconsistency of cuenca and pedro, I’d play afellay in that left wing forward role, where he can use his pace, dribbling and shot taking skills.

    the only problem with afellay is that he Just doesn’t look up enough. His head is always looking at the ball when he is in posession and thats a bad thing, especially if u r playing for Barca.
    C’mon Ibi, we need you. Chut de bol dammit!

  14. blitzen
    March 20, 2012

    @Youngcules posted a link to this great highlight package of the latest Juvenil A and Cadete A games. Featuring Oscar Garcia and Dongou scoring for fun!

  15. March 20, 2012

    He’s been out so long I’ve forgotten which spelling of his last name is correct.

    • blitzen
      March 20, 2012

      Remember it this way: One F FoLLowed by two Ls.


    • March 20, 2012

      Falafel it is.

  16. Laurentiu88
    March 20, 2012

    I wanted to note an interesting observation by Sid Lowe on RM and UCL on the fact that they may reach the semi-final without playing any team from Europe’s four major league’s.

    • blitzen
      March 20, 2012



    • Laurentiu88
      March 20, 2012

      🙂 no, not this time!

    • Chiu
      March 20, 2012

      they got luck with the draw, fortunately

  17. mangut
    March 20, 2012

    I think Afellay is most valuable to the club as a sale. He is best suited for the EPL where speed and carelessness of possession are common. If he remains he will only clog the wings and the midfield for the talent coming up. Defensive midfield is interesting though but I have not seen him play that for Barcelona nor did I watch his games in Holland.

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