Over to Germany, and two consecutive league losses by Bayer Leverkusen has taken some of the shine off tomorrow’s trip to fourth-place Schalke. Still, when a game features a man who has bent the nets 12 times in his last eight matches, you don’t need much else to get you excited. Yeah, had Robin Dutt’s men not fallen flat, Schalke-Bayer could have been a fight for Germany’s last Champions League spot, but their swoon gives us an excuse to splash some well-deserved praise on Klass-Jan Huntelaar.
The Dutchman sits on 20 Bundesliga goals this season, placing him just behind Bayern Munch’s Mario Gomez atop the league’s charts. Having notched two Europa League hat tricks in the last month, Huntelaar is more than merely reinforcing his reputation as one of the world’s more resourceful strikers. He’s finally living up to the hype.
While Huntelaar struggled to make an impact at Real Madrid and Milan (2008-10), he seemed incapable of meeting expectations built from back-to-back 36-goal seasons at Ajax. But Huntelaar was never really the problem. The expectations – born out of over-valuing Dutch league performance – were, and with Real and Milan never fully adjusting to Huntelaar’s style, it’s little surprise the moves never worked out. Over 50 games between the two clubs, he scored “only” 15 goals.
The teams appeared to fall into a trap Huntelaar unconsciously and ironically creates. Between his size and the areas of the field in which he works best, it’s natural to see him as a typical No. 9. Put him in the middle, have him push the line, serve it up and let him knock it in, right?
With Huntelaar, no. The man does his best work when he can push the line then drop back, find space in the areas 10-15 yards from goal, and use his skill rather than his will. Work wide-to-in, give him the chance to run into spaces in the defense (rather than force the spaces to open), and he’s as capable as anybody. This 20-goal season’s no fluke.
It’s still best to think of him as a No. 9, but he’s certianly not a typical one (he’s only 13th in offsides/game this season). Unlike Bayer’s Eren Derdiyok, he’s not making his money physically dominating anybody. True to his reputation, he’s resourceful, and prolifically so.
In Madrid and Milan, he was asked to play a slightly different part, and with the talent that crams those squads, there’s no reason for them to tailor their systems for somebody that’s not going to be the focal point. In Gelsenkirchen, give him a creator (Raúl) and a blow-by-you wide man (Jefferson Farfan), and you have a true difference-maker.
Madrid and Milan’s loss; Schalke’s gain.