Locked in battle with Borussia Monchendgladbach for the Bundesliga’s 3rd automatic Champions League qualification spot, Bayer Leverkusen winger Karim Bellarabi is clear where he wants his team to finish. “Now we are up where we want to still be at the end of the season” he said, after his winner against Schalke in late March had put Leverkusen above Monchengladbach into third place.
That was the 25 year old’s eleventh goal of the season for Leverkusen and such form has attracted Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal to an £11 million release clause in his contract. With Bayer eliminated from the Champions League and the German Cup, a top 3 finish is their sole target for the remainder of the season and manager Roger Schmidt would probably share the same intent as his winger to finish there in order to give his club more leverage as they come to keeping their major stars at the BayArena for next season.
A defence that is only bettered for goals conceded by Bayern Munich and Monchengladbach, and not shipped a single goal for the past 5 games, is certainly effective but it is in his vibrant attacking quadrant where Schmidt finds his main assets.
Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu has been named the “new Ozil” and has also garnered interest from Arsenal, Korean Heung-Min Son has 10 goals from his station on the left-wing and Stefan Kiessling and Josip Drmic each have 6 goals as they share centre-forward duties. On the right of the four, you find Bellarabi, the pacey wide-man who has 4 assists to go with his 11 goals. With 40 chances created, he his 2nd only to Calhanoglu in the Leverkusen squad on the table of their most creative players.
Ahead of the DFB Pokal quarter final with Bayern, Bellarabi was singled out for praise by Pep Guardiola. “If Bayer Leverkusen wins the ball they are looking for direct contact with the strikers. This is accomplished with players like Julian Brandt or particularly Karim Bellarabi” he said, before he witnessed the winger terrorise his defence in the BayArena only to see him denied by the superb form of Manuel Neuer.
The German stopper saved 3 times from Bellarabi and also denied Kiessling from the winger’s cross, while Rafinha had to make a desperate lunge to prevent Brandt turning in another dangerous ball in from the right. It was an excellent display from Bellarabi but it couldn’t stop Bayer going out on penalties, similarly to their Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid.
Like Guardiola hinted at, Bellarabi is indeed direct and quick, offering a superb balance on the right side of Schmidt’s attacking midfield 3 that has Calhanoglu central and Min Son on the left. He is powerful and tricky with his feet, traits that make him so dangerous cutting inside to get involved in the play and head towards goal.
His total of 251 attempted dribbles is by far in excess of anybody else in the Leverkusen squad, coming at a rate of 5.2 successful dribbles per game, while his tally of 97 shots is also the highest at the club.
Two statistics that translate directly to a simple but effective game of taking on his defender with pace and skill before getting shots away. Such intent to make his way towards goal and an unerring coolness in front of it earned him a goal within 9 seconds in the season’s opening game with Borussia Dortmund, inserting his name in the record books by hitting the Bundesliga’s fastest ever goal.
It was a fitting start to a campaign where the winger has burst into Joachim Low’s national side and made more appearances for Leverkusen than he has over the past 4 years with the club. For a 25 year old, it seems odd that this should be his breakthrough year but a series of injuries, loss of form and managerial changes has meant his Leverkusen career has never really managed to take off before now.
A loan spell at Eintracht Braunschweig, the club that handed him his senior debut back in 2008, saw him get back to full fitness and form despite failing to keep them in the Bundesliga, and it was enough for Leverkusen’s sporting director Rudi Voller to urge Roger Schmidt, who had only just taken over last summer, to include him from the start. “He’s taken our style of play and made it his style of play,” said the manager after he made his blistering introduction against Dortmund. “He’s not just quick on the ball, but off the ball.”
That potency and those attributes saw him called up to the Germany squad last October and Bellarabi, who opted to play for the country of his birth despite Moroccan parentage after spending time in the under-20 and 21 squads, has since registered 5 caps. In a team that has lost some of its vigour since claiming the World Cup last summer, he will certainly be hard to dislodge.
That resilience and desire was forged and honed, says Bellarabi, playing on the streets of Bremen as a youngster. “You had to learn to impose yourself. I don’t mind being described as a street footballer nowadays.”
He is still definitely imposing himself, no longer on the street but on the pitch, where he is showing his quality for both club and country.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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