It’s hard for me to be objective about Bojan. Since his arrival in 2014, he’s probably been my favourite Stoke player – as much as I still have ‘favourite players’ anymore. Nonetheless, I’ve been his biggest advocate, criticising Stoke managers for his non-selection, defending his perceived weaknesses and campaigning for his inclusion in the side.
Once again though, the Spaniard’s Stoke career is at a crossroads. While he remains a member of the Stoke squad, he has one start to his name so far this season, 65 minutes of our opening home encounter against Brentford. For a side that often looks so pedestrian in attack, Bojan for many is a quickfire solution to a lack of creativity.
The argument is enticing. Bojan is the only recognised ‘number ten’ at the club, and it’s hard to make a case that any other player in the squad possesses his ability on the ball. There’s also his inherent ‘X Factor’ – an ability to create something from nothing – that is at record low levels after the departure of Xherdan Shaqiri. However, Gary Rowett has been reluctant to give a full run to the man he called, perhaps dismissively, a ‘fan’s favourite’ at the start of the season.
There’s a sound tactical reasoning behind the lack of starts. Rowett’s preferred formation is a 4-3-3, a system that naturally doesn’t include a number ten. Whilst Bojan has had cameos on the wing, Rowett’s shape doesn’t give many licenses to flit in between the lines.
Rowett told Radio Stoke at the start of the season: “It hasn’t been my intention to start the season with a conventional number 10 as I felt as though in some ways it hampered the way that the team (Derby) could play last season, so we would be very, very reliant on that position, and if you notice we didn’t score that many goals other than from our number 10″
Matej Vydra played 40 games behind the front man for Rowett’s Derby last season, scoring 21 goals, so this change in tack is a little surprising. A desire not to be over-reliant on one player is understandable, but a move away from a system that generated results is a brave call. However, even accepting Rowett’s conversion to 4-3-3, Bojan’s pitch time still seems scarce, especially in situations such as against Blackburn, where a lack of guile plagued Stoke for 80 out of the 90+ minutes.
Then there’s the issue of two unsuccessful loan spells at Mainz and Alaves. A lack of starts at the latter has reinforced a commonly held belief that Bojan never fully recovered from his heartbreaking injury at Spotland in the FA Cup. That may be a debate that continues long after his time at Stoke is up, but for what his worth his return to the side after injury saw the best of Hughes’ Stoke.
Yet if he wasn’t worth recalling to Paul Lambert’s struggling side, and wasn’t making waves at a mediocre Spanish outfit, what chance does he have now? On the basis of his limited minutes so far, it will be a real struggle for Bojan to prove his worth to Rowett. The new boss’ ruthlessness with his friend Moritz Bauer may ring alarm bells, but the redemption of Saido Berahino does at least show the manager is prepared to be patient with under-performing players.
If Rowett’s devotion to a 4-3-3 system is the only thing preventing our number 27 from starting games, then fans will have to accept their idol might have to wait on the bench for a while longer. That is if that’s the only reason. When you play in the way Bojan does, the words lightweight and inconsistent will inevitably be thrown around, and I wonder if grizzled Championship veteran Mr Rowett simply sees the former Barca wunderkind as too much of a – another cliche incoming – luxury player.
Perhaps those labels are accurate, but we the Stoke faithful simply haven’t been afforded the opportunity to assess for ourselves whether they apply to 2018 Bojan. There are few things more frustrating as a fan than a manager not seeing what you can plainly see, but having not seen him over a sustained period of time for so long I find it harder to dismiss his value to Stoke. Bojan is still a quality footballer. He needs to be given a run of games to find his feet in this league and for my money an even half-way firing Boj would cause trouble for any defence in the Championship.
4-3-3 may be the right way forward for Stoke (despite recent evidence to the contrary) but Bojan is too good an asset not to prompt a bit more tactical flexibility from his manager. While sorting a broken defence is the top priority, it now could be time for Plan ‘B’ at the other end of the pitch.
Bojan’s career has been a cautionary tale for players hyped up to be the next big thing. He has felt the weight of the ‘next Messi’ tag his whole career – and has bravely opened up about the effect this had on his state of mind. I want him to think of Stoke as ‘his team’ now and to no longer seem like an outsider for the club he helped rejuvenate on the pitch. I’m not such a Bojanite that I expect or demand that he starts every game and be made captain, just that he be brought in from the cold.
The fact he was willing to go to Mainz and Alaves demonstrates that above all else, he wants to play football. These moves, although unsuccessful, were made because he wanted to be starting football matches. At 28, now may be his last chance to truly blossom at a club, as he did for a period under Mark Hughes. I want that to be in The Potteries and part of me believes he wants that too. However, he also knows he can’t wait forever, so before long we could be facing up to El Petit Geni’s third and final departure.