Häcken duo en route to the big European scene

Young duo Carlos Strandberg and Simon Gustafson are playing well in Allsvenskan and might head to bigger leagues sooner rather than later.

Allsvenskan, the top flight of Swedish football, is still home to several interesting youngsters despite the move of the country’s most talented teens to foreign academies. Two of the most exciting players in Allsvenskan are BK Häcken’s left footed duo Carlos Strandberg and Simon Gustafson.

The 18-year-old Strandberg, who has Mozambican heritage, is a big centre forward with a strong physical presence and pace. With a fairly good technique, he’s also a strong finisher with both his head and feet. Strandberg was one of the key players when Sweden won a bronze medal in 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Even though he didn’t score a lot of goals in the tournament, he played well and supported his team mates in an effective way. Strandberg’s superior physical presence, ability to play as a targetman and holding up the ball while waiting for his team mates to get there, work-rate which includes many selfless runs, were vital ingredients to the young Swedish team. His superior presence, ability to play as a target man who can hold up the ball while waiting for his team mates, and work rate evidenced by selfless runs were vital contributions to the young Swedish team.

Sceptics felt that the physically imposing striker, standing at 186 centimeters tall and weighing 90 kilograms, relied heavily on his physique while playing on youth level. However, his recent success for BK Häcken’s first team indicates that he’s well-equipped to perform not only against ‘kids’, but against men as well. Strong competition for spots and injuries caused Strandberg to only feature in 8 games this season. In those, he has managed to score 3 goals and 3 assists.

His highly impressive performances made Strandberg a hot bargain on the transfer market. Europe is calling and the amount of interest is huge. According to Swedish and foreign media, Strandberg is on the verge of joining Borussia Dortmund for around €2-3 million. I believe that move would make a lot of sense for everybody involved. Strandberg will get an opportunity to work with Jürgen Klopp, who has an amazing record with developing young players, and Dortmund will get a young player with obvious star potential.

The other half of Häcken’s duo is Simon Gustafson who looks set to be the most exciting talent in the league in the event of Strandberg’s departure. The 19-year-old Gustafson is an offensive central midfielder with impressive game intelligence and technique. While he has scored 4 goals so far this season, perhaps the most notable aspect of his performances is his consistency. Being able to sustain a high level of performance is remarkable for his age and no doubt an ability foreign scouts have noticed.

Simon Gustafson 1

The 185 centimeter tall Gustafson is by no means a finished product, but he’s certainly a very interesting prospect for the future. Häcken coach Peter Gerhardsson told the Swedish paper Sportbladet that the teenager needs to get tougher and get a better understanding of the physical duels, but added that they are working on that individually. Indeed, that’s one of the very few weaknesses in Gustafson’s impressive game.

His performances have created a big interest around Europe, but he’s a down to Earth guy and understands it’s better to continue in Allsvenskan than get stuck on a bench or a loan loop. “I’m not ready yet. It’s not worth the risk of ending up in a Primeravera-team,” Gustafson told Sportbladet when asked about the interest from Serie A.

Some Swedish journalists think Sweden manager Erik Hamrén should give Gustafson a shot on a senior international level. It’s just a matter of time before he gets his first full cap and moves to a big league, but he’s staying put for the moment which is exciting for Allsvenskan as a league.

The Curious Case of Zakaria Bakkali

Less than a year ago, the young Belgian was hyped as one of the most exciting players in Eredivisie. Now, he’s available for a knock-down fee on the transfer market. How did this happen?

Belgium is one of the most interesting national teams today. The federal monarchy in Western Europe, with a population of around 11 million people, has had an amazing turnaround in it’s football development during the last few years. They are currently producing plenty of fantastic talents.

The 18-year-old winger Zakaria Bakkali is one of those. He started getting recognition across Europe during the season 13/14 after his breakthrough in PSV Eindhoven’s first team. A personal highlight of his career so far was the hat trick against NEC Nijmegen. It wasn’t just a case of a few lucky goals; he put them in brilliantly. This meant he became the youngest player ever to score a hat trick in the Eredivisie.

Everybody could see the qualities of the young Belgian. He’s very quick, skilled and not afraid of taking initiative. He also has a low point of gravity which enables him to slide past bigger defenders. Some people have compared to him to Eden Hazard as he’s right footed and usually plays on the left wing. It’s easy to understand that comparison. But, unlike Hazard did at Lille, Bakkali has not yet found a consistent performance level at PSV.

The hat trick was obviously a great moment for Bakkali in the early stages of the 13/14 season, but he couldn’t keep up the success during the entire season. That was also why he was hardly mentioned in the World Cup squad discussion, despite getting his first international cap for Belgium in October 2013. Others players – especially Adnan Januzaj – managed to perform on a much more consistent level. It made a lot of sense for the Belgium manager Marc Wilmots to select Januzaj rather than Bakkali for the trip to the World Cup in Brazil.

One of the reasons why Bakkali didn’t manage to perform on a consistent level was the controversy surrounding his contract situation. The fact that his current contract expires in the Summer 2015 meant PSV really wanted him to sign an extension. However, Bakkali is still rejecting their attempts to extend which is making the situation tense. Bakkali’s mentality on the pitch has been criticized by PSV officials and I believe they have put themselves in a difficult situation.

A few months ago in a friendly against the South Korean side Gyeongnam, Bakkali was substituted 15 minutes in the game. During his post-match interview, the PSV interim-manager Ernest Faber explained that the youngster repeatedly ignored his defensive instructions. Despite a rocky relationship with the player, a long-term contract offer still on the table. You have to wonder why they are offering him a long-term contract if they really doubt his talent. It’s unlikely that the criticism has had a positive effect on Bakkali who must be keen on leaving the club. I don’t think he had been treated well by PSV, even though it’s impossible to know exactly what has been going on behind the scenes. Of course, you can understand clubs’ frustration when players are unwilling to extend. However, to publicly criticize players after subbing them early in friendly games seems like a rather unintelligent negotiation tactic. It certainly didn’t convince Bakkali to extend and it hasn’t raised his value on the transfer market.

Dutch media claim that Bakkali is available for around £2 million which is an amazingly low fee for a player of his potential. That fee means he could represent a real bargain for the big clubs as it’s basically peanuts for them. Clubs such as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Liverpool have been linked with Bakkali during the last months. There’s talk that he might sign for a big club and imminently move elsewhere on loan. That would make a lot of sense as he needs to get more experience and find a more consistent level of play before he’s ready for a big club.

In contrast to Bakkali’s season, teammate Memphis Depay consistently played well for the club. This saw the player called up for Netherlands’ squad in the recently concluded World Cup. While the 20-year-old’s maturity over Bakkali is currently evident, I have a feeling that the latter would end up being the better player in 4-5 years.