No one should be surprised that ex-Barca golden boy Bojan Krkic is playing well in England. The fact that he’s doing it at Stoke? That’s the new Premier League
No matter how accomplished, no matter how creative, a certain type of foreign player must answer a question when he crosses the English Channel. “Can you do it on a wet Tuesday night at Stoke?”
The fact that Spanish playmaker Bojan Krkic Perez is currently “doing it” at Stoke—creating goals—tells us a lot about the state of English soccer.
To explain: It is Stoke in this question and not, say, Newcastle or Aston Villa. Manager Tony Pulis led Stoke to the Premier League in 2008, but promotion didn’t mean Pulis suddenly had time for false nines and triple stepovers. Stoke had a strategy, and it worked. There was something majestic in its simplicity: Midfielder Rory Delap—no more specific positional description exists for the Swiss-army knife of an Irishman—would wipe his hands on a ballboy-supplied towel and hurl a long, flat throw-in into the penalty box, where giants like Mamady Sidibé and Ryan Shawcross would try to apply a finishing touch with whatever body part happened to be handy. Stoke scored other types of goals, of course, but a header nutted into the net was the dream.
In their own half, Stoke earned a reputation for the dark arts, defending and fouling with equal vigor. Shawcross shattered Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey’s leg with this, uh, robust (read: sickening) challenge in 2010. Arsène Wenger later accused Pulis of employing “rugby-style” tactics. Powerful, pragmatic Stoke, in the sanitized modern game, were the closest thing there was to an inheritor of Wimbledon and Vinnie Jones’s “Crazy Gang” legacy. Even the name of their stadium, the Britannia, recalled the days when the British Empire ruled the waves by the sword.
But if Stoke epitomize English steel and thunder, Bojan is the archetypal foreign player who can’t cope with the Midlands wind.
Bojan was the “next Messi” when Lionel Messi was still young. After nearly 900 goals for the club’s youth teams, the 17-year-old Bojan slotted home a Messi through ball to become Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer, and the hype machine took off. He finished that 2007-08 season with 12 goals and five assists for one of the greatest teams of all time—and the future looked bright for the local boy manager Frank Rijkaard called “a treasure.”
Like so many young talents, though, Bojan burned out. Rijkaard’s replacement Pep Guardiola had doubts about his consistency, and as Bojan told Stuart James at The Guardian, the pressure in Catalonia was exhausting. He never quite reached the heights of that first season, and playing time soon dried up. The prodigy had turned prodigal.
By 2011, Barcelona was ready to sell. Bojan bounced from Roma to A.C. Milan and Ajax without much success, and last summer’s $4 million move to Stoke City seemed like rock bottom. What’s more vanilla than a city famous for industrial casino online pottery? Thing is, vanilla might be what Bojan wanted. “When you play with a big club, you need to get results every single day,” Bojan told The Telegraph, “It”s not easy. I remember when Thierry Henry signed for Barcelona, after ten days he was like: “f***.” [blown away]. He played here, in England, a long time. He said in England it was easy, the people never came to the training ground and the journalists visited once a week. At Barcelona it”s completely different.” Bojan’s adapted quickly to his low-key home, settling into an apartment in Cheshire and taking two English lessons a week.
The early evidence suggests that the putatively rough-and-tumble Brittania could be the perfect place to turn around the career of a player who isn’t rough and likes to tumble. Amidst all the old Redwoods, Bojan now flits from trunk to trunk, prancing, probing, still cherubic, still beautifully-balanced, and still only 24. Now, four goals in sixteen Premier League matches isn’t exactly setting the league on fire—but those goals, like this one in a win over Tottenham—have been crucial, and Bojan brings another element to Stoke’s play. In a slugfest this month at Leicester, with the match tied 0-0, he received the ball fifteen yards out with his back to goal. Mark Hughes later got all clairvoyant in his post-match interview. “When Bojan gets the ball in those areas of the pitch, you always sense something will happen.” Hughes was right though. The little guy had fired home the winner with his next touch.
And while Bojan was wandering, growing up, Stoke had changed too. Pulis had brought some success, reaching the Europa League in 2011 and fending off relegation for five straight years, yet the board had grown tired of all the long balls. Mark Hughes, who once played for Barcelona, was brought in to effect if not a transformation then a modest evolution: Stoke still trot out six-footers like Peter Crouch and Steven N’Zonzi; the difference is N’Zonzi is now one of the league leaders in total passes made. There are short passes, and there are one-twos, and there are Marko Arnautovic dribbles. In fact it was another Hughes recruit from Barcelona, defender Marc Muniesa, who helped convince Bojan to come.
It’s a sign of Stoke’s progression that Hughes believed his club had a legitimate shot at bringing in Bayern’s winger Xherdan Shaqiri in the January transfer window (Shaqiri signed for Inter Milan). And it’s a sign of the Premier League’s changing nature—and financial clout from top to bottom—that even medium-sized clubs pursue “luxury players” like Bojan, Mauro Zarate, and Remy Cabella to play between the lines. The English dogma of 4-4-2, of hoofing it to the big lad up front, is weaker than ever, and the league is better for it.
Peter Crouch; Ryan Shawcross; Steven N’Zonzi. Marko Arnautovic; Marc Muniesa; Bojan Krkic. Wet Tuesday nights at Stoke still aren’t easy, but they’re weirder, and more fun, than ever.
Follow Noah Gordon on Twitter at @NoahGordon10