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June 13, 2018

The Lost Boy

By David Rudin

Remember Bojan?

That’s an unfair question to ask of a 27 year old, whose life remains largely ahead of him. It is, however, a question the football world has asked about Bojan Krkíc since he was a teenager. This is a world that has always been uncomfortable with his present, preferring to talk of his past and what — if anything — his future could entail. In 2011 and in an apparent bout of masochism, Brian Phillips waded through a 200-page forum thread about Bojan. “It opened at around the time of his debut, with a lot of bold predictions about how he’d be the best player in the world,” he wrote. “By 2010, it had largely devolved into an argument about whether he should be sold or sent out on loan.” He was The Future, then that future was from the past, leaving the question of what his revised future might be. All of this and he had yet to turn 21.

A few words, then, about Bojan’s present. He is coming off a season on loan at Alavés, his sixth club in seven years, where he scored one goal in a cup match. He is nominally a Stoke City player, but is unlikely to remain there. He is also opening up about struggles with anxiety. “I was called up for Spain against France, my international debut, and it was said that I had gastroenteritis when I had an anxiety attack,” he recently told Sid Lowe. “But no one wants to talk about that. Football’s not interested.”

There is an obvious temptation to use what we now know about Bojan’s emotional state to explain the entirety of his peripatetic career. In its tidiness, such a narrative invites us to misunderstand anxiety. Anxiety is messy. It burrows its way into your consciousness and eats away at your ability to contextualize events and feelings. In so doing, it reshapes each life in a different way, and the way it transformed Bojan’s life and career — beyond the fact that it did — cannot be diagnosed from a distance. That most things in one’s life can be interpreted through the prism of mental illness says more about its totalizing effect than causal mechanisms. Every story is a mental illness story when you’re unwell.

This is a story about Bojan Krkíc, mental illness, and football. Maybe, but not necessarily, in that order. No solutions are on offer, because this is a story about a question nobody can answer: What happens when a player doesn’t know what to do with himself and football offers no answers?

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Consider the career of Bojan Krkíc.

Consider the 900-plus goals he reportedly scored at the youth level with Barcelona, not because it’s of tremendous statistical significance, but because keeping that number in the back of your head puts you in the correct mental space for this story.

Consider his first two seasons at Barcelona, where he scored 12 and 10 goals at the pace of one every 180 minutes, before turning 19. This, combined with the context in which some of the goals were scored, was enough to make the case for starlet status. It’s at this point in the historical record that shot data becomes more readily available and the Bojan story gets messier. He averaged 2.84 shots per 90 minutes in 2009-10 and just over 3 in 2010-11, scoring 12 and 7 goals in those seasons. Those would prove to be the rare seasons where Bojan took the bulk of his shots inside the box.

Consider a player, now almost 21, for who an average 90 minutes looks something like 2.9 shots and 0.5 goals. Factor in his pedigree, his 900-plus youth goals. What is he, a forward with unremarkable shot totals or an attacking midfielder without the assists or key passes? What do you do with that player? You make him someone else’s problem, obviously.

Consider Bojan’s trajectory from Roma to Milan to Ajax to Stoke — a collection of impressive European teams (and Stoke) that aren’t Barcelona. Slowly moving down the continent’s footballing tiers can attenuate the incongruities in a player’s game. But with the transfer market only opening twice a year and the hope attached to a wunderkind’s name taking a long time to fade, it can take years — the heart of a career, really — for a player to find their level. This process is rendered all the more inefficient by clubs seeking out buyers who will recoup their costs even if they can’t fix the player.

Consider, then, that Bojan has been the same strange player at just about every stop on his journey through European football. A successful dribbler who completes a high percentage of passes, he offers insufficient penetration for an attacking midfielder and not enough goals for a forward. Playing against lesser competition is not a guaranteed solution to the contradictions in a tweener’s game. At Roma, Bojan pulled off a rare good season for key passes (3.08 per 90 minutes). He was gone the next year, off to Milan and then Ajax, where a dearth of penetration — throughballs, assists, and goals — continued to be an issue. Per 90 minutes, he continued to take about three shots, most of them from outside the box, and complete about 2.5 dribbles while completing roughly 85 percent of his passes.

Consider Stoke City under Mark Hughes, football’s island of misfit toys. This project served as a reminder that Bojan was hardly the only ballyhooed player left to languish by football’s upper echelons. Indeed, by 2016, Stoke was close to fielding a transfer rumour listicle from five years prior as its starting XI. All of which is not to say that Hughes had any real idea of what to do with Bojan. Fielded with other amorphous attackers, he exceed his expected goals in his two full seasons (4 goals and 2.6xG in 2014-15; 7 goals and 4.59xG the next year) while his already dubious production of shots and key passes per 90 minutes steadily declined.

Consider, finally, Bojan’s recent loan spells at Mainz and Alaves. Even Stoke City has to offload its misfit toys somewhere. He did next to nothing at these clubs. He scored a goal at the former and none at the latter; he produced two expected goals in that period. At Alaves, where he spent all but one match of his 2017-18 season, Bojan’s shots and key passes per 90 minutes (1.03 and 0.41, respectively) fell further off a cliff, as did his minutes. Clubs, especially the ones taking loans from Stoke City, have bigger problems to solve than the Bojan enigma. The transfer and loan market is a mechanism for finding some players’ levels, but one can just as easily get lost that way.

Consider all that we know about Bojan Krkíc. Do you know what to do with him? He’s clearly not the 900-plus-goal legend from Barcelona’s youth system, but he has some interesting skills as a dribbler and passer. It’s a weird combination of skills, mind you. Maybe it can still be made to work, but that’d require an unusual tactical system. How many clubs, though, would build a system around the skills of a player who is about to turn 28 and has never put it all together? It seems increasingly plausible that Bojan will spend a decade-plus in football playing for the biggest clubs without anyone having a clue what to do with him.

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Football in the 2000s has cultivated the reputation of a field that relentlessly optimizes its participants. Proof of this doesn’t just come in the form of your Cristiano Ronaldos and Paul Pogbas, Greek gods who deign to play football once or twice a week. Rather, middling players on middling teams are now absurdist phenotypes. Beyond their copious genetic gifts, footballers now have carefully planned diets and conditioning plans. For good measure, the language of statistical analysis has bolstered the belief that inefficiencies can be identified and ruthlessly crushed. There are no schlubs anymore.

This self-image exists in the half-space between truth and fiction. It is true that players keep getting stronger and faster. They seemingly recover from calamitous injuries at physiologically improbable speeds. But football’s imagination and capacity for optimization is not limitless. It has simply become better at wringing a little bit more out of the same types it has always trafficked in: powerful, monomaniacal athletes. The sport is not wholly indifferent to psychology; the mental aspects of penalties, for instance, have been endlessly rehearsed. Football in 2018 can make your Harry Maguires more Harry Maguirey and your Mauro Icardis Mauro Icardier. But the further one strays from a footballing archetype, the less football knows what to do with you. Football is less imaginative than it believes itself to be.

Case in point: Bojan Krkíc.

There’s an obvious precedent for such a player, and Bojan followed Messi out of La Masia, but the undersized, positionally ambiguous attacker remains a difficult type. The likes of Diego Buonanotte and Juan Iturbe ran into similar walls. Football wants more players like Messi but may not have a clear idea how to turn these small attackers who look promising as teens into successful adults. One team pulling it off with one generational talent does not make for an obvious path to professional success.

Add something like anxiety into that equation. Being less anguished, one imagines, would have improved Bojan’s play in some way. But maybe not by much. Maybe not in any meaningful sense. There is no direct trade-off between the number of panic attacks one suffers and the number of throughballs one can thread. Maybe if football had done a better by Bojan, he’d have still been the same, strange player, but happier. That sounds like a worthwhile outcome. But this is where the calculus of treating anxiety diverges from a broken leg. At some point, making the most of a person’s potentiality shifts from being explicitly about football into the squishier territory of self-actualization. That, it appears, is where football ceases to care.

The strangest part of the Bojan Krkíc story is how profoundly normal the whole thing remains. He is not, for all the ink that has been spilled here and elsewhere, a particularly unusual type: skilled in some ways; lacking in others; anxious about how it all fits together. That’s a lot of us. As stories about footballers struggling with anxiety and depression trickle out, it’s becoming clear that’s a lot of them, too. To the institution of football, however, this remains largely foreign — a reminder football’s closer to the 1990s, when replacing binge drinking with broccoli was radical, than the endlessly optimized future we hear so much about.

 

(Header image courtesy of the Press Association)

Article by David Rudin