The era of Sam Allardyce and his dour brand of football had come to an end at Upton Park and in his place arrived law graduate, guitar-playing rocker Slaven Bilic. The charismatic new West Ham boss swaggered back into East London and when the high-profile signings of Dimitri Payet and Alex Song followed it wasn’t only bubbles in the air, it was a renewed sense of optimism.
In the circumstances, The Hammers’ loan signing of young Argentine midfielder Manuel Lanzini from UAE side Al Jazira went somewhat under the radar. A slightly built South American who had been playing in a league with a reputation as more of a final payday for footballers rather than a breeding ground for talent was understandably viewed as a signing that would require a little patience.
The truth, however, was that the West Ham faithful needed to wait just three minutes into Lanzini’s debut for a glimpse of his talent. The 22-year-old dropped his shoulder, cut onto his right foot and rifled Bilic’s side in front against Romanian’s Astra Giurgiu in the Europa League qualifiers. Some would argue that impressing against relative minnows and excelling in the Premier League are worlds apart but it wasn’t long before Lanzini answered those critics too.
A second goal in his first start for the trip to Anfield confirmed Lanzini’s presence in Bilic’s midfield for the season but his impact surprised even the Croatian coach, who had been tracking the youngster since his River Plate days.
“I am only surprised that he hit it off straight away,” Bilic said.
“I thought he was going to need more time because he played in the UAE. It is a good level but you can’t compare that with the Premier League.
“He is a phenomenal player, who is very comfortable on the ball, no matter where he is and gives everything in every training session. I know him really well because I tried a couple of times to get him to my previous club, Besiktas, but it didn’t happen.”
Besiktas’ interest in Lanzini whilst at River was well documented but Bilic appears to have seen something in the attacking midfielder that few others did.
Emerging from the youth system of the Argentine giants, which he had joined as a nine-year-old, Lanzini made his first-team debut at 17 and drew immediate comparisons with former No. 10, Pablo Aimar. What both players lacked in physical attributes they made up for in touch and vision and the similarity was not lost on the young Lanzini.
“Aimar was my hero”, explained Lanzini. “He came through the youth ranks in more or less the same position. I watched him often, partly because it was a pleasure – the way he moved the ball and got the team going – and partly because people said we had similar styles. I honed in on him for that.”
Bestowed the famous River No. 10 shirt, Lanzini at times struggled for consistency but endeared himself to supporters with two memorable goals at La Bombonera against bitter rivals Boca Juniors – his header in the 2013 Torneo Final being the fastest scored in a superclásico.
Given the reported European interest and Argentine football economics dictating player sales, Lanzini’s exit was inevitable but it came as something of a surprise when that move was to Emirati club, Al Jazira.
The concern was that Lanzini was taking a sideways step in his career but he and the Pride of Abu Dhabi club appeared confident that his stay in the UAE capital would be temporary.
Liam Weeks, the club’s head of performance analysis, would later say they “knew as soon as he arrived that he wouldn’t stay long”.
It proved to be entirely accurate.
We will do every thing possible too keep Lanzini. dg https://t.co/m1lgPYdUWa— David Gold (@davidgold) January 13, 2016
Marking his debut with a brace, Lanzini’s overall contribution to the Al Jazira attack during the 2014-15 campaign was impressive. Behind centre-forward Mirko Vucinic, Lanzini scored a modest eight but crucially was involved in 70 per cent of his side’s goals.
Not wanting to miss out on Lanzini again, Bilic ordered West Ham to move and a one-year loan agreement with an option to make the deal permanent for £7 million (Dh37m) was arranged. The statistics that Lanzini produced in the UAE are not quite so spectacular in the Premier League but his four goals from twelve appearances fail to fully capture what the 22-year-old has brought to the Boleyn Ground side.
With a pass completion rate of 88.8 per cent, no West Ham regular can boast a higher value and only Payet, in his more advanced role, is more creative.
Bilic has taken Lanzini, the advanced playmaker, and dropped him deeper to play a far more significant role in retaining possession, dictating play and assisting with defensive duties. Where many had seen Pablo Aimar, earlier in his career, Bilic sees more of his Croatian counterpart, Luka Modric.
“I have never seen a player who reminds me of Luka Modric as much as Lanzini,” Bilic asserted after the Argentine scored in the victory over Crystal Palace.
“Luka is my favourite player. He is my prototype of a great midfielder and Lanzini has the same kind of qualities.
“He is making other players better. He always wants the ball and that’s why we put him in midfield. He always makes himself available. If players are in trouble, he comes and gets it. He doesn’t look strong but some players can defy that physicality to impose themselves. Modric is the same and, like him, Lanzini is not afraid either.”
Bilic can certainly take credit for making Lanzini a far more complete midfielder and West Ham look a much better side with the 22-year-old in the starting eleven. These performances have prompted interest from other clubs but West Ham co-owner David Sullivan has already calmed supporters by claiming the transfer will be made permanent before the deadline.
“By February or March, he will be a permanent West Ham player,” Sullivan said. “He could be a top, top, top player. He’s already sensational and he could be as good as any player in the world.”
There is some way to go before this is true but Lanzini is beginning to deliver on his early promise and a bright future surely beckons.
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