Away from the glare of Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund-centric Bundesliga coverage lies a remarkable young talent plying his trade for Bayer Leverkusen. His name? Hakan Calhanoglu, and he has both B04 and Turkish football fans brimming with excitement over his future in the game.
He shot to prominence in the 2013-14 season while turning out for Hamburg, netting an astonishing 41-metre free-kick against Dortmund to truly catch the continent's eye. With Roman Weidenfeller flailing and Calhanoglu whirling away to celebrate, the iconic Jurgen Klopp looked on from the sidelines, struggling to know whether to laugh or cry at what he'd just seen.
Moment seized, Calhanoglu has leapt from strength to strength in a short period of time; a €14 million move to Leverkusen soon followed that set piece, and Roger Schmidt has made him a key cog in a new-look heavyweight side.
After 39 combined starts across league and UEFA Champions League action in 2014-15, the talented playmaker is a well-known (and feared) commodity across Germany and represents the Bundesliga's emerging face in Europe.
Calhanoglu is 5'10" and of average build. That's pretty much the marker for him as an athlete.
Unlike others profiled at B/R this week, such as Jack Grealish (agile), Bernardo Silva (elusive) and Paulo Dybala (poised), Calhanoglu has no discernible physical trait worth boasting about. He's not slow but not fast; he's not a twig, but he's no powerhouse; and his height matches the national average for the nation in which he was born, Germany.
Bayer Leverkusen made by far the most intriguing and tactically exciting managerial appointment of 2014, appointing Roger Schmidt after the German had caught the eye across Europe with his wild experiments and success with Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg.
His bizarre and curious tactical strategies, involving high-block pressing, direct, exciting attacking moves and losing the ball in certain areas on purpose, have been tempered slightly because Leverkusen are chasing for major honours, but it's still been suitably nutty and against the grain.
The pressing aspect of his tactical setup has ensured there have been no passengers in his project so far, and you can bet Calhanoglu would not have been signed if he wasn't able to pull his weight in every aspect—including the off-the-ball work.
There have been hundreds, even thousands, of technically brilliant No. 10s who have decided themselves above such hard work, but Calhanoglu has a tenacious and determined edge to his playmaking ability. His effort makes up for his mediocrity as an athlete, closing and snapping at heels while chasing possession and doing his best to block passing lanes.
He's far from perfect in this respect, but his response to the challenge laid down is commendable: Other 21-year-old full internationals with a wand of a boot might just take a different opinion of his manager's methods.
3. Killer Balls
If we were to describe Calhanoglu with one label other than "set-piece wizard," it'd be "killer-ball merchant"; his first, second and third preference when picking passes is to slice the opponent in twain.
The key element here, following good touch and control, along with the ability to quickly shift the ball out from under his feet and into a striking position, is his no-nonsense approach to passing. Put simply, he doesn't dither or dally, checking his options; he lifts his chin and releases the ball within a second if the run is on.
He cuts across the ball with remarkable finesse, caressing it with the outside of his boot just as well as he does with the inside. He spots gaps and feeds it through, cutting opponents' lines and systems into pieces, sending them into disarray with one ball.
The urgency with which he moves the ball out of his feet is paramount to his success, and it makes him a stunning fit for Schmidt once again. Not only does he press and harass to the best of his ability, but he capitalises on the turnovers by initiating quick attacks from advantageous positions.
He can pick the ball up deep and pick a striker's run into the channel or find space between the lines in an advanced position, turn and feed a cute ball in behind the defence for his No. 9. Clever, movement-based strikers thrive in a team with Calhanoglu therein; their instinctive runs are picked out, not ignored.
In essence, he knows when to be direct; he sees clear-cut chances quickly and looks to capitalise on them. It's been working to Leverkusen's advantage and will continue to, and it saved Hamburg from relegation in 2014.
4. Spread Play
Importantly, though, Calhanoglu is not forever chasing the cutting, incisive through ball. While he obviously prefers to play it, he has other dimensions to his passing that make him an all-round star.
Again, starting off the back of the quickness with which he primes a pass, the Turkish maestro is able to spread play superbly to the left or to the right. Sitting in the No. 10 space, centrally, he'll shift play to either flank at will, moving the ball to whichever situation looks more dangerous for the opposition.
The timing and shape of his passes are built perfectly for the role he takes on, and he's been able to pick out quicker wingers and overloading runners for Leverkusen with accurate, arcing deliveries.
As with the cutting passes benefiting the No. 9s, the same occurs here. It's notable that both of Leverkusen's first-choice wingers in 2014-15, Son Heung-Min and Karim Bellarabi, hit double figures for goals, per WhoScored.com. In fact, both managed more than designated striker and experienced goal poacher Stefan Kiessling in the Bundesliga, scoring 11 and 12 respectively to Kiessling's nine.
It certainly wasn't all down to Calhanoglu, but his creative presence and incisiveness allowed them clearer chances on goal throughout the campaign. In particular, he developed a very strong understanding with Bellarabi, learning how the Germany international times his runs and where he wants the ball to be played.
The results were borderline devastating at times.
5. Set Pieces
We arrive at the main meal. If Calhanoglu continues to take free-kicks for the next nine years as he has over the last two, he'll go down as the greatest free-kick taker of all time—no exaggeration.
Here's a resume of his work from dead-ball situations from 2014-15 alone:
It's pretty brutal what he's been doing to goalkeepers for the last 12 months. These set pieces are taken in the Bundesliga too, which is arguably the best league for goalkeeping standards in world football right now.
He outfoxed Dortmund's Roman Weidenfeller from 41 metres to make his name, then cemented that reputation by beating Bayern's Manuel Neuer and a whole host of others too.
It's not just the attempts on goal that worry opponents from these positions, but the sweet deliveries from the wide areas too. He bends a wonderful delivery into the box to be headed home, with Kiessling, Omer Toprak and many more benefiting from the service last season.
It's a game-breaking ability, and it's served Schmidt extremely well over the past year. If Leverkusen come up short when trying to break down a particularly stubborn opponent, a free-kick won in the right area could be all it takes to jimmy the lock—Hakan will surely come up with the goods.
6. Crossing/Shifting Wide
There are occasions when opponents try to mark Calhanoglu out of the game, such is his destructive ability from the No. 10 space. Teams try to clog his zone with two or three men, providing an insurmountable blockade for both runs and passes.
Athletically average playmakers struggle in these situations. For example, when Kaka hit physical decline and could no longer evade markers with his giraffe-esque stride, he succumbed to the lower-level tactics of lesser players.
But Calhanoglu retains the ability to drift wide and utilise his wicked deliveries as crosses rather than passes; he can shimmy left or right to evade the increased attention and still be lethal for his manager and team.
He's got a better cross than most wingers in the game, measuring deliveries with the same poise and precision used to stupefy goalkeepers from dead-ball situations. Kiessling's great movement in the box opens the angle for him, which he finds nearly every time.
Son scored a fair few back-post conversions and tap-ins last season, boosting his tally to 15 goals overall, and Calhanoglu's deliveries were key to this. He can shape to deliver into the middle, gather a crowd of bodies, then pick out Son steaming in off the far edge with consummate ease.
"Hakan is one of 11 players and our strength is the whole team," Schmidt stated following Leverkusen's 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League last season, per Goal. He was forced to bring to attention the other 10 players wearing black and red as reporters barraged him with questions about goalscorer Calhanoglu.
Not only is he the ultimate highlight-reel player thanks to his ridiculous free-kicks, but he's also a potentially world-class player maturing quickly under a manager who understands his strengths and weaknesses. When a brilliant No. 10 can still make himself a devastating presence despite increased attention from the opposition, you know you've got a true talent on your hands.
|Hakan Calhanoglu Statistics, 2014-15|
|Games||Goals||Assists||Key Passes (pg)||Acc. Crosses (pg)|
Born in Germany but with Turkish lineage, he's the next in a growing line of Bundesliga heroes who straddle the two nationalities—Mesut Ozil, Ilkay Gundogan and Nuri Sahin being more established examples.
Playing in the Champions League opens the window for all to witness his prowess, and should Leverkusen draw an established heavyweight in their group—provided they make it through the play-off—it'll be Calhanoglu's chance to show the world what he can do.
It's easy to project Calhanoglu as the emerging face of the Bundesliga; he ticks all the appropriate boxes.