Stuttgart's Martin Harnik has been the most productive wide player in the Bundesliga over the past two seasons, and has reportedly drawn interest from Liverpool and Newcastle amongst others. Here's all you need to know about the Austrian attacker.
As the various facets of modern football have evolved, players have also been forced to adapt. Defenders are now expected to contribute to the offensive side of the game and vice-versa, and often players are retrained to a different position than that which they have played for most of their career (wingers in to full backs being a prime example). With the 4-4-2, and the traditional winger, becoming something of a dying breed, teams are starting to seek alternative options for the wide positions, and one solution is moving players who are used to play more centrally out wide, maybe because they possess the attributes most wingers have, despite not usually playing there.
There is a caveat to that, however. Often when a player is utilised in a different position to the one he originally established himself in, it is a sign that he has failed to perform to a decent standard in his natural position, but in some cases it is a clever tactical move by the manager who sees something in a player that could get the best out of his qualities. Martin Harnik of Stuttgart is one such player who has benefited from such a change, as he has been transformed from an inconsistent striker to one of the most prolific wide men on the continent.
Born and raised in Hamburg, Harnik moved to bitter rivals Werder Bremen in his late teens, plying his craft in their II side before earning a spot in the senior squad. He found himself on the peripheries of the first-team without making any real impact, and at one particularly injury-ravaged period of Thomas Schaaf’s tenure in Bremen, was unsuccessfully played at right-back. As with many young players at a big club, it wasn’t until he moved away that he really made a name for himself – and it was loan move to Fortuna Dusseldorf in 2009 that really sparked his career in to life, averaging just under a goal every two games in the German second tier.
Harnik had to make do with place on the bench for the first couple of months, but in the weeks leading up to the winter break he started to impress and Bruno Labbadia, the Stuttgart manager, used him on the right to great success.
Having impressed in Dusseldorf, Stuttgart swooped in to sign him in the summer of 2010 for an extremely modest fee of around €300k – a similar fee to what Dortmund paid to sign Shinji Kagawa that same summer – and he joined an already substantial strike force, with Cacau, Ciprian Marica and Pavel Pogrebnyak all established at the club. Harnik had to make do with place on the bench for the first couple of months, but in the weeks leading up to the winter break he started to impress and Bruno Labbadia, the Stuttgart manager, used him on the right to great success. In the second half of the season he became a regular in the side, finishing the season with 15 goals and became one of the bright spots of what was an otherwise disappointing season for Stuttgart, who narrowly avoided relegation.
Many players have had a prolific season only to disappear in to mediocrity, but the test of a quality player is to maintain it once defenders pay extra attention to them, and with Die Roten lacking a prolific striker, as the most productive Stuttgart player Harnik was often doubled up on; he was still productive, but was denied the time and space to influence games as he did the year before, scoring 7 in the first half of the season. The signing of Vedad Ibsevic from Hoffenheim in January finally gave Stuttgart the focal point of their attack, and the Bosnian forward quickly developed a strong understanding with Harnik, who rediscovered his form and finished the season with 17 goals.
It’s easy to see why Harnik has excelled in recent seasons. He’s tall, quick, a strong and direct dribbler and technically sound. His movement is superb, and having played as a striker earlier in his career the runs he makes in and around the box to either find space, or create it for his teammates, are impressive. Harnik finds himself in a similar situation to Theo Walcott in as much that despite claiming he is more comfortable playing through the middle, he has undoubtedly made his biggest impact playing as a right forward. He has always regarded himself as a striker, and that is where he started his career, but it’s hard to argue with his production out wide.
It’s easy to see why Harnik has excelled in recent seasons. He’s tall, quick, a strong and direct dribbler and technically sound. His movement is superb, and having played as a striker earlier in his career the runs he makes in and around the box to either find space, or create it for his teammates, are impressive.
Over the past two seasons the Austrian has outscored many of the elite attackers in the Bundesliga, with the likes of Arjen Robben, Frank Ribery, Shinji Kagawa, Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle, Jefferson Farfan and Mario Mandzukic all failing to get on the scoresheet as regularly as Harnik, which is no mean feat, particularly when you consider how poor Stuttgart were two seasons ago. He has become famous for his goal celebration, “Thors Hammer”, which is pretty self-explanatory.
The Bundesliga is arguably the most similar league in Europe to the Premiership in terms of the pace of the game and the style of play. Whilst there are notable differences, it certainly develops quality players and prepares them well to compete at the highest level - and whilst I haven’t looked into it, I’d imagine the success rate of players who come through the youth system in Germany and move to England is higher than that of those who arrive from the other major European leagues.
Having signed a new lucrative long-term contract earlier this year, Harnik did not rest on his laurels; he started this season in the same way he finished the last, leading the Stuttgart scoring charts. He wouldn’t come cheap, which is understandable given how expensive prolific wide players are, but at 25 there’s still plenty more to come from him, and it’s easy to see why Liverpool and Newcastle have been rumoured to be interested. It would be a shame if he didn’t get the chance to showcase his talents on the big stage, whether that be a move to one of the bigger German clubs or a move abroad.
You can follow Alex on twitter @woolfc
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