Arda Turan reminds me of Thierry Henry. It’s not that I think Turan will one day pull of some majestic flick, turn, and smash a la Henry against United, though Arda can absolutely do great things with the ball, and it’s not that I think they’re remotely similar in terms of style. Arda reminds me of Thierry because, early in his Barcelona career, the great French player and I had somewhat of a strange relationship. I remember standing in the old Nevada Smith’s in Manhattan, watching a game with the NYC Penya, all of us jammed in the back watching on the projection screen. I don’t remember who it was next to me that I was talking to and I don’t remember what game it was, but the play was basically a short ball to Henry, a flicked return to sender, and then another one-time pass back to Henry, except there was no one there. Henry hadn’t made the run into that tiny space and the move came to nothing. The person talking with me shook his head along with everyone else and said that Henry simply wasn’t thinking quickly enough. We’d had high expectations for him, we’d thought he was the best there could be at his position, but then he showed up at Barcelona and here he was, most of the way through his first season in blaugrana and he hadn’t even managed to get the one-two passing down that seemed like a basic requirement of stepping onto the field with the fiesta known as Xaviniesta.
A couple of years later and such sentiments about Henry, whose self-sacrifice on the left wing was evident more and more throughout his time at the club, seem a bit absurd. He scored 49 goals in 121 official appearances. To put that in perspective, Alexis Sanchez scored 47 goals in 141 appearances while the widely lauded David Villa scored 48 in 119. Obviously, Neymar has been outrageously good and has skewed some of the statistics on the left wing (he has 81 goals in 132 matches), but Thierry Henry’s return was more than good. It seemed to take a little while to take off, even as he did score a few goals in the league that first year, but that it did take off is sometimes forgotten given his 3rd season’s much lower return (4 in 32) or his first season struggles. I’m not, of course, arguing that Arda Turan will suddenly start scoring buckets of goals, but I am arguing that comparing him directly to Andres Iniesta is probably a poor way to judge whether or not he is playing his part.
What I mean isn’t that you can’t take 2 players and compare them, but there must be some context. Andres Iniesta has been part of the Barcelona system since, I think, 1945 so the moves involved, the nuances, are in his muscle memory. There’s no learning, there’s only slight tweaks. Repetition makes perfect, they say, and Andres Iniesta has clearly been repeating since before he was born. It would be absurd to think that Turan, a Turkish football product who most recently played under the very different tutelage of Diego Simeone, could simply change his game that quickly. If it were so simple, there wouldn’t be discussions about fitting it, it would be FIFA2016 out there where you buy a player and they integrate by the time the Super Cup is upon you.
The obvious counterpoint is Ivan Rakitic. He stepped into the side and immediately shone. He made 51 appearances last season. Only Messi had more (57). He scored in the CL final, if you recall. If Arda was expected to do that, it was never realistic. Rakitic had no one to replace—he was the one that needed to be replaced. He filled a role that Lucho basically created for him while Arda is attempting to adapt to roles that are not only already there, but have been proven by a Triplete to work. Still, Rakitic is certainly a standard you’d love Turan to live up to, it’s just a bit unrealistic to expect immediate impacts like that.
Much more worrisome is Lucho’s refusal to use Turan as a direct replacement for Iniesta, whose role is most suited to Arda’s abilities. Until, of course, this past Wednesday at home against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Turan was much better slotting into the left side with Neymar than he has been on the right side with either Messi or Suarez. Turan was able to play the isolation game much better with Neymar than he has been. It might be generous to suggest that this was a turning point for him, but Turan displayed more pluck and guile than he has even as he’s been fairly good throughout his few minutes. He’s made 19 appearances so far, all of them, of course, since his January debut. He’s getting eased in, as he needs to be, because this is a complex and intense system.
That we’re in the most important run of the season and he’s trying to find his feet certainly makes him seem more lumbering ox than sprightly gazelle, but if it took Thierry Henry, one of the greatest strikers of all time, nearly a full season to adapt, then it should be no surprise that Turan—who, while talented, is no Thierry Henry—will take at least as long. There are rumblings that he’s going to age out before he’s made up for his transfer—will his adaptation period take up the bulk of his prime?—but that seems somewhat absurd if given any sort of context: he’s 6 days younger than Luis Suarez and just 3 days older than that young whipper snapper Gerard Pique. By the time he’s Andres Iniesta’s current age it will be January 2018, so there’s plenty of time left to decide if he’s been a bust.