Younes Belhanda is a name on the lips of every Montpellier and French football observer this season. The Moroccan, who is a graduate of Montpellier’s youth academy, has come of age this season and has caught the eye of Kenny Dalglish who, along with Steve Clark, reportedly went to attend a Montpellier match to ascertain just how good the youngster really is. The playmaker has reportedly attracted interest from the likes of Real Madrid and his skills have apparently convinced PSG to offer up to £20 million for his services. So just what is all this hype about and how good will he suit Liverpool?
YOUNES BELHANDA: GAMEPLAY DECODED
Younes Belhanda has notched up 13 goals and 4 assists so far, not exactly prolific is it? But to truly understand is importance you have to go deeper than just stats. It is his ability to dictate play and pinpoint vision that makes him stand out. Add to that the fact that this is his first season as an attacking midfielder for a club that is leading the Ligue 1 and outshining players like Pastore on the way speaks volumes about his quality. At the start of the season, Montpellier’s owner, Louis Nicollin, commented that Belhanda would be even better than Hazard and Pastore this season. Though saying that Belhanda is better than Hazard or Pastore would be stretching it, he was certainly spectacular and gave them a tough fight.
The most interesting thing about Belhanda’s gameplay is his intelligence on the ball. His passing is delightful to say the least, but it his movement with the ball pulling defenders on to himself, thereby creating space for midfielders and strikers to run into, before releasing an inch perfect and precisely weighed through ball is what makes him stand out. This especially makes him dangerous on the counter where he sees the runs of his teammates and moves with the ball in such a direction so as to create space for the runner and simultaneously gain a better angle for the pass. In normal gameplay when not counter attacking, he plays well centrally and passes well dictating the tempo of the game. He is not reluctant to drift out to the wings to find more space and has the ability to provide a good cross. When not on the ball he is ready to track back and provide a good cover for his defense. Having been initially trained as a defensive midfielder give him a good positioning and decent tackling. When off the ball, Belhanda usually positions himself more on the flanks near the halfway line, from where he collects the ball and dribbles it towards the center.
Dribbling is another forte of his game. He dribbles himself well out of tight situations and is not afraid to take on defenders. That is something that I find is alarmingly lacking in our midfield. We just do not have midfielders with that flair to get past their man. It is important to have a dynamic midfield capable of multiple genres of gameplay. Another point I noted about his game is his first touch. His first touch often takes the ball away from the defender tracking or marking him. He also has a variation in pace. He possesses a decent pace but a very good acceleration. He makes most of it by constantly changing his pace which makes it difficult for defenders to judge when to put a tackle in. Add to that his agility and quick feet, he doesn’t lose the ball that easily. He has a very good right foot curling shot that is reminiscent of Ashley young. His long shots aren’t bad either, considering he has come close a number of times this season often hitting the post or the crossbar. He seems to be already coached in the “Liverpool way” in that sense. His transition into the Premier league shouldn’t be a problem either considering that he a good sense of balance. He has also played as a defensive midfielder and considering France has a decent number of physical players, he shouldn’t have that many problems in adjusting to the physicality of the league. His penalty taking is also good. He is as cool as a cucumber when it comes to penalties. I have seen him chip the ball over the keeper at least 3 times, the time I have watched him play including once in a penalty shootout. He would be a safe bet to put away his penalty.
FITTING INTO THE LIVERPOOL SQUAD
I firmly believe that the reason that the reason that Liverpool have drawn so many games at home is because of the lack of creativity in midfield. Yes, we have created a lot of chance and hit the post a number of times but they have been largely due to Suarez’s brilliance than anything else. There has hardly been any incisiveness from our midfield especially after the Lucas – Adam partnership broke up. In the name of pass and move we have largely been passing sideways and backwards, and I think Belhanda has it in him to provide the cutting edge. I can’t stress how important it is for a team like Liverpool which looks to play passing football with an offensive strategy to be dominating the midfield. We have dominated a lot of games, yes but many of them were dominated because the opposition chose to sit deep and contain our attacks, and pray to god that either our chances go begging or that all our shots hit the frame of the goal and deflect out, and amazingly that strategy has worked well against us. A team has to have at least one outlet of creativity apart from the strikers.
We generally play a midfield of central 3 with 2 out and out wingers. On the left Bellamy has used his pace to a good effect but his tiring legs have been becoming more and more evident as the season wears on, and Downing’s performance this season has been a huge let down. On the right we have Kuyt who is a converted right midfielder. He is tireless in his game and always gives his 110% but that rarely the source of the spectacular. And then there is the curious case of Henderson,this season he has proved that he is not ready to man Liverpool’s midfield, at least as of yet. So our wingers are not creative Lucas is purely a holding midfielder and Gerard is a box to box midfielder whose main job is to make runs into the box, and make himself available to receive passes. So where is our creativity? Belhanda would provide a good option for attacking midfielder. We have pace in our wingers and Suarez which can be maximised by Belhanda’s passing. As the game against Chelsea so emphatically reminded us, unless we play with a target man ready to hold up play, we need an attacking midfielder who can link our midfield to our forwards. Belhanda is highly suitable for this task. He started off as a defensive midfielder, then went on as a winger to finally settle as a No.10 and is hence versatile. His willingness to drift to the wings and a good crossing means that he can put in good crosses for Carroll too. His presence will also add a new facet of dribbling to our game.
All of the above about Belhanda are true but that hardly means that he does them match in match out. Consistency comes with age and we must be ready to be patient if we are to build a team. Also he is known to go down easily. His temper can also flare at times when he feels that he has been tackled dangerously or if he has a disagreement, but I expect that to reduce with age. Belhanda like any player is no guarantee for success but I would expect great things of him if he is coached right and handled well.