Bojan to Ajax – Last chance for a once mercurial talent

With the transfer window wide open, there’s still a lot that can happen, but it’s a fair assessment to say that Ajax’ loan signing of Barcelona striker Bojan is one of the greatest coups of the Dutch summer. Bojan Krkic once was one of the biggest promises on the planet. However, he never break through at Barcelona and the Italian adventures with AS Roma and AC Milan didn’t really bode well either. At Ajax, he gets a final chance to fulfill his promise. Gary Linton (of Alba Espana, Lovely Left Foot and The Football Project) and Jack Sargeant (of SB Nation and cycling blog Velo Voices ) take a look at the career so far of the young but experienced striker.

The great fairy-tale has it that Bojan scored over 500 goals for the youth teams at Barcelona. Whether you believe that or not is up to you. An undeniable fact, however, is that Bojan broke records at Barcelona – and a lot of records at that.

Bojan started out at La Masia in Barcelona, joining the school at nine-years-old, at the age of 16 he featured for Barcelona B, then one season later, under manager Frank Rijkaard, it was onto the big time. At the age of 17 years and 19 days old, Bojan made his debut for Barcelona’s senior team, thus breaking the record which was previously held by Leo Messi, becoming the youngest Barcelona player to feature in a La Liga match. Just a mere three days later another Barca record fell, as Bojan featured in a Champions League match at the age of just 17 years and 22 days old.

That wasn’t the end, Barcelona’s new little ‘wonder kid’ wasn’t done breaking records, and next up was him becoming the first person born in the 1990s to score a goal – not the most prestigious record, admittedly, but a record nonetheless. Come the end of his first season with the senior team, he broke yet another record, this time finishing the season with 10 goals, breaking Raúl’s record of most goals scored in a debut season.

The following campaign wasn’t as good as the first for Bojan, as he featured in fewer games, mostly being used as a sub behind the likes of Messi, Eto’o, Henry, Pedro, Gudjohnsen and others. However, he fared much better in the cup competitions and the European games than he did in the league. He did indeed win the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey, but as he was only a bit-part player, arguably his biggest feat in the 2008/09 season related to his involvement with the Spanish national set up.

In 2008 Bojan was approached by Serbia to play for their national team (he has a Serbian father, Bojan Krkić, Sr., who was a professional footballer for the Serbian side Red Star Belgrade), but he declined the opportunity as he’d rather play for Spain.

After declining the approach by Serbia, he was called up to the Spanish squad to play against France, and he would have broken yet another record by becoming the youngest player ever to play for Spain at 17 years, 5 months and 9 days old, beating the record set by Ángel Zubieta’s at the age of 17 years and 9 months – which had stood for over 70 years – but unfortunately Bojan fell ill and couldn’t take part in the game. He did get capped for Spain roughly 6 months later, though as this is his only cap to date, maybe he should have chosen Serbia.

The opening half of the 09/10 season wasn’t the greatest for Bojan. Barcelona had bought Zlatan Ibrahimović during the summer and this meant that he played fewer games, now being behind the likes of the big Swede, Pedro, Jeffrén, Messi and Henry. In the second half of the season his form did pick up, specifically in the league, scoring seven of his 12 goals that campaign in the last dozen games of the season. His form come the end of the season looked likely to project him on to more game time and better and bigger things the following season; unfortunately for him this was not to be the case.

The following season he found himself not behind Ibrahimović anymore, but he did indeed find himself lower in the pecking order than the likes of new signing David Villa, as well as the regulars such as Messi, Pedro, and Afellay and, again (but not so much), Jeffrén. Again, this wasn’t very easy for a young striker. That season was his worst in numbers for both appearances and goals.

With the past two seasons it didn’t seem like it had much to do with Bojan’s skill or potential to be a great player, it had more to do with the fact that there was simply no room for him behind ‘better’ and ‘bigger’ players. In his four seasons with the first-team, he featured in over 100 games for the club (becoming the youngest Barca player in history to make 100 appearances in La Liga, the third overall in La Liga behind Raul and Joseba Etxeberria), and scored 26 league goals in 4,113 minutes – an average of one goal every 158 minutes.

In the 2011/12 season, with Barcelona having newly promoted Isaac Cuenca, new signings Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas as well as the regulars Messi, Villa, Pedro and Afellay, there was simply no room at the inn for young Bojan, who hopped over to Italy in a bid to find more playing time.

Quoted in the last few days as describing his Italian adventure as “a mistake”, it’s clear things didn’t exactly go to plan. Opting for a move to Roma at the same time as his compatriot and Barca B coach Luis Enrique, it seemed like he would excel as a Spanish brand of possession football was implemented at the Olimpico. However, much like Enrique’s experience at Roma, Bojan was left frustrated. Generally playing on the left of a 4-3-3, he struggled to shine.

He had no problems finding first-team football, appearing in all but five of the Giallorossi’s league games. Breaking into the starting eleven, though, proved impossible. Luis Enrique – the very man who had persuaded Bojan to follow him to Rome – generally preferred Fabio Borini or Osvaldo out on Bojan’s left flank, while Erik Lamela cemented his place on the right. With a shift to a narrower 4-3-1-2 towards the end of the season, Bojan was almost exclusively starting from the bench, in all starting only 13 games in Serie A, scoring seven goals.

It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that he – alongside Enrique – left Roma at the end of the season. But, while Enrique left Italy altogether, Bojan moved five hours north to AC Milan. Frustratingly, his season at the Rossoneri could pretty well be described by copy and pasting his Roma review above. Utilised more by coach Max Allegri over the first half of the season, his movement and skill saw him play out wide, as an advanced playmaker, and even as a false nine.

Sadly, though, he still was never able to have a desired impact, or cement himself in a certain position. Falling victim to Allegri’s switch to a 4-3-3 and the arrival of Mario Balotelli in January, he was once again relegated to playing a bit-part. No statistic is more telling than that which reveals Bojan only started one league game in 2013, only going on to appear five more times after a goalless draw with Sampdoria in January. In May, it became clear Milan had no intention of making his loan deal permanent, as he returned to Barcelona before being handed onto Ajax this summer.

Bojan with his Ajax shirt.

Bojan with his Ajax shirt.

Upon his arrival in Amsterdam, Ajax’s sporting director Marc Overmars has stated that it’s “time that [Bojan] shakes off the label ‘talent’.” In truth, he was given ample opportunities to shake that label in Italy over the last couple of seasons. At 22, Bojan is running out of time to live up to the expectations stretched by his record-breaking streak at Barcelona, and no longer has any excuses for underperformance. At Ajax he should find more regular football than he’s come by over the last few seasons, hopefully able to find the consistency he’s so badly lacked. Considering he is a high profile signing for the Eredivisie and the effort that Ajax has put in bringing him to the club – Feyenoord and PSV were interested too, but in the end, it was a phone call by Johan Cruijff that made Bojan’s decision non-existent – he is likely to get an extensive shot at first team football. And in Frank de Boer, he has one of the most promising managers in European football. A manager, who has proven he can work with youngsters and resurrect careers.  It now really looks a case of make-or-break for Bojan – though not for the first time.

A special thank you to Sheridan Bird, who provided some additional info and quotes on Bojan’s time in the Serie A.

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