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Inside FutbolInside Futbol

06 October 2018

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Holland

Inside Scoop – Leandro Bacuna: Aston Villa Need to Polish Still Raw Dutch Gem




The first person to be surprised at the transfer of Leandro Bacuna to English Premier League side Aston Villa was the player himself. “It feels great”, the Dutchman said after putting pen to paper on a three-year deal with the Midlands club, “and this is a dream come true for me.” After the arrivals of Ron Vlaar, Brett Holman and Karim El Ahmadi last year, Aston Villa once again looked to the Eredivisie for a summer signing. However, differently from the trio snapped up in 2012, Bacuna arrives not having had a breakthrough season in Holland. It is for this reason that his move to the Premier League raised a number of eyebrows in the Eredivisie.

Bacuna likes to describe himself as a box-to-box midfielder, a player in the Frank Lampard mould. Since he took his first steps into professional football, few had doubts about his talent and his breakthrough on the Eredivisie stage was considered just a matter of time. After making his debut with Groningen at 17, he quickly became a regular fixture, impressing for his versatility, energy and ability to keep driving throughout an entire game.

This continuous shuffle from position to position however became a double-edged sword for Bacuna last season. “I played as a right winger, left winger, attacking midfielder, defensive midfielder. Sometimes I felt like I was the coach’s plaything”, he admitted. As Groningen’s season turned from bad to worse, with their lack of consistency and the pressure of European ambitions, plunging the side close to the drop zone, Bacuna quickly became the supporters’ whipping boy.

 

“We played badly, no doubt about it”, conceded Bacuna. “However, I can’t understand why the supporters were so angry with me. I have been at the club since I was nine.” Racist chants were heard at the Euroborg, a shock for Groningen. “I wonder how some unimpressive performances could have given some supporters the right to act that way”, mused the midfielder.

A stranger at home, Bacuna began to spend more time in Amsterdam, where his girlfriend was attending a beautician school, than in Groningen. “Sometimes for a footballer anonymity is a blessing, especially when things are not going the right way”, he said. “In Amsterdam I could walk quietly in the streets; nobody cared about me.” The times when the whole Euroborg sang “Bacuna Matata” to praise him for the winning goal against reigning champions Ajax couldn’t have seemed further away.

Despite a season full of twists and turns, Bacuna was vital for Groningen last March in a key clash in Tilburg against Eredivisie rivals Willem II. With the Green-Whites 1-0 down in the first half, Bacuna led Groningen’s comeback with a goal and an assist. The victory ended the Trots van het Noorden’s (Pride of the North) slump and kept them firmly out of the danger zone.

“Groningen had a season with too many ups and downs, and I did too”, conceded the midfielder of Antillian ancestry. A disappointing season played its part in Bacuna missing the trip to Israel for the European Under-21 Championship with the Jong Oranje, despite having been a regular during qualifying (ten games played and one goal scored). The same happened with team-mates Virgil van Dijk and Genero Zeefuik; Zeefuik was even Jong Oranje’s top scorer in qualifying.

Tactically speaking, Bacuna lacks the vision of a number 10 or the dribbling skills of a great winger. Given his power, work rate and stamina, he is better suited to a central midfield spot. “I am focusing on a more defensive role”, he admitted. “In my first seasons with Groningen I was often criticised for my sometimes brutal approach to the game. Now I have become quieter, but not too much. The Premier League is one of the toughest competitions in the world and I feel ready for it.” Bacuna’s technical ability and powerful shot should however not be overlooked and if he can flourish under Paul Lambert, Aston Villa fans should expect the odd goal; he scored 14 times in 109 Eredivisie appearances.

Bacuna is from a sporting family: his mother was an international for the Dutch Antilles team, while his father was an international too, for Curacao, where he is still a footballing idol. “People there like him so much that every time I score you read in the papers ‘John’s son did it again and scored a goal!’. They don’t call me by my name; I am just John Bacuna’s son.”

Time will tell if Birmingham is the right place to polish this still raw Dutch gem.

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