The new Ozil? Hakan Calhanoglu's excellent form both good and bad for Bayer Leverkusen
So disheartening is the course of modern football that a player Bayer Leverkusen signed last summer on a 5-year contract is already the subject of rumours linking him with a move away from the club. Bayer and manager Roger Schmidt must be entitled to wonder what the point of it all is if the progress they have made this season is to be undermined almost immediately by the departure of one of their best players.
Hakan Calhanoglu is indeed one of Bayer’s best players and with the midfielder apparently stalling on signing a new deal, rumours have started to circulate over a move to Arsenal. A free-kick specialist possessing deadly vision and excellent technique, comparisons with current Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil have long been in vogue and Winfried Schafer, his former coach at Karlsruhe, where Calhanoglu would first play professionally, is in no doubt.
“Calhanoglu is the new Ozil,” Schafer told Bild. “Hakan is an exceptional boy. He has a lot of confidence and courage. He is simply great”.
The uncertainty over Calhanoglu’s future has coincided with Leverkusen’s battle to reach next year’s Champions League. The pharmaceutical-backed club currently lie in fourth, which would mean the potentially difficult assignment of qualifying in the autumn.
The rise of Calhanoglu at Leverkusen
Schmidt, who made Calhanoglu one of his first acquisitions as Bayer coach after arriving just a month before the 21-year-old, will undoubtedly need his midfielder in place to negotiate that qualifier and to build on the impressive form they have displayed so far in a season that has seen them reach the second round of the Champions League and the quarter finals of the German domestic cup. After having to cope with the departures of Arturo Vidal, Andre Schurrle, Dani Carvajal and Emre Can in recent years, it will be another setback should Calhanoglu follow in the same direction.
The success of Schmidt’s inaugural season in charge, the former Red Bull Salzburg coach drafted in to stabilise the club after the bizarre period of Sami Hyppia and Sascha Lewandowski, has been largely owed to the form of Calhanoglu who together with Heung-Min Son, Karim Bellarabi and Stefan Keissling have formed a dangerous attack to go with their stout defence. In the Bundesliga only leaders Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach have shipped more than Leverkusen’s 29 and they have kept 6 clean sheets in their last 9 games.
Bayer’s tally of 45 goals, bettered only by 3 teams, has also been a great help and Calhanoglu has scored 5 and created 3 of them. Another 2 goals, including the thunderbolt that gave them a first leg lead over Atletico Madrid in the last-16, and 2 assists have come in the Champions League while in the group stages only Lionel Messi forged more chances than Calhanoglu’s 19. Back in the Bundesliga, the Turkish attacking midfielder is Bayer’s most creative player with a total of 47 chances made.
Though he would see his side eventually lose out on penalties to Atletico in the second leg, Calhanoglu completed all 8 of Leverkusen’s games in Europe and has featured in all but 1 of the club’s league games. He is a constant in Schmidt’s teams and a vital, indispensable cog in the 4-2-3-1 system the German has devoted himself to.
The 21-year-old is currently in Turkey’s squad for the games with Netherlands and Luxembourg and should he feature in either game he will add to 5 caps he has earned since his senior debut in September 2013. His progression for his country, whom he opted to represent despite being born in Germany, has paralleled a rise at club level that has been similarly meteoric.
After beginning his career with Karlsruher SC he would sign a 4-year deal to join Hamburg in the summer of 2012 only to be loaned back to Karlsruher for the 2012/13 campaign in the third tier. He would score 17 goals as they would return to the German second tier and then would go on to score 11 goals as he enjoyed his first season of Bundesliga football last term for Hamburg.
That would be the Turk’s only season at the Imtech Arena as he made no secret of his desire to leave, jumping at the chance to “take the next step forward at Leverkusen” and to “play at the top end of the Bundesliga and the Champions League.”
Will Leverkusen be able to hold on to Calhanoglu ?
With Bayer currently harbouring little hope of competing with Bayern Munich at the very top of the Bundesliga or the elite on the continent, Leverkusen will be aware that Calhanoglu will draw upon that ambition should he want to go higher in the future. They will be alerted by Arsenal’s fluttering eyes as well as Barcelona’s who, according to the player’s agent Bektas Demirtas, have expressed an interest in the attacking midfielder.
Though, with perhaps a hint towards Barca’s transfer ban, Demirtas has poured water on those flames, saying “Not to sound arrogant but, for Hakan, interest from Barcelona is not interesting at the moment. He has everything he needs at Leverkusen.”
With Roger Schmidt getting the best out of the player in a system that suits him perfectly, that claim is hard to argue against. Plans are already in place for next season at the BayArena as centre-half Andre Ramalho has been signed from Red Bull Salzburg on a free transfer, Leverkusen and Schmidt will be desperately wishing Calhanoglu will still be around to welcome him.
Written by Adam Gray