The poor old transfer team often gets it in the neck this time of year, but they’ve done quite well out of Chelsea in recent times. Obviously we don’t trumpet this connection as loudly as the Barcelona one, given the Blues are essentially English football’s version of the Empire in Star Wars. However, having beaten other clubs this time last year to snap up Victor Moses on loan, we’ve now likewise seen off the North East clubs to sign highly rated Marco van Ginkel. The transfer boys wouldn’t let Jose Mourinho mug them off either; MVG was reportedly the fourth player ‘the special one’ offered us as part of the Begovic deal. First he tried to fob us off with Nathan Ake, who spent an unremarkable loan spell at Reading last season and has just joined Watford. Next, he tried to get us to take Nathaniel Chalobah, last seen stinking up England’s u-21 Euro campaign after helping Burnley to relegation. Patrick Bamford, Championship Player of the Season, was presumably more tempting. But we sensibly held out for a Dutch international.
Wolfert Cornelius ‘Marco’ van Ginkel was, just two short years ago, amongst the very brightest prospects in world football. He’d been showing promise at Vitesse Arnhem since the age of 17, but absolutely exploded in 2012-13, his exploits as a box to box midfielder (with eight goals), helping the black and yellows to fourth place in the Eredivisie. That May he took the prestigious Johan Cruyff Award for best young player, a title previously held by such names as Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Klass-Jan Huntelaar and one Ibrahim Afellay. Making the announcement, no less an authority than Cruyff himself declared: “Marco van Ginkel was chosen as the deserved winner by the jury. He has developed this year hugely and has a bright future ahead.”
Given their relationship with Vitesse, it was no surprise that Chelsea won the race for his signature, paying around £8m for him as he became the second signing of Mourinho’s second coming. He wasn’t joining to make up the numbers either, the Portuguese reportedly assuring him of significant playing time and talking in glowing terms about “the kid”.
The hype machine was in overdrive. In the Netherlands he’d been seen as the complete midfielder, having played behind the striker, in front of the defence and as a box to boxer. His ability to ghost into attacking positions saw him hailed as ‘the new Lampard’. Other journalists hedged their bets, variously describing him as ‘a hybrid of Lampard and Essien’ and ‘a cross between Lampard and Gerrard’. MVG himself claimed to model himself on Sneijder and Schweinsteiger. His high cheekbones and boyband quiff even got him likened to Justin Bieber. It was all very exciting.
Of course, as is the case with quite a lot of the players hoovered up in the Hughes era, things would go dramatically wrong for van Ginkel just when his time to shine seemed to have arrived. After a couple of substitute cameos for the Blues in the league and a decent enough showing against Basel in the Champions League, he made his first domestic start against Swindon in the League Cup. He lasted just 10 minutes before a gruesome collision with Spurs’ Alex Pritchard saw him rupture his ACL (a la Bojan).
His season was over almost before it had begun, and he has been playing catch-up ever since.
Mourinho closely monitored his recovery and it speaks volumes about how highly he was thought of that there were still tentative calls for him to be part of Louis van Gaal’s world cup squad after some fine showings for the under-21s as he recovered in the spring. He had looked set to make an Oranje shirt his own, making his debut in 2012 in a ‘friendly’ against old enemy Germany.
It was clear he needed more regular football than Chelsea could offer, so last season he was packed off to AC Milan on a season-long loan. Despite the proud Dutch tradition with the Rossoneri, going back to the days of Gullit, van Basten and Rijkaard, van Ginkel apparently needed a lot more convincing to go to Milan than he did to come to Stoke, which should tell you a lot about the trajectory of the two clubs. Faded force though Milan are, it was nonetheless a huge opportunity – one that lasted 34 minutes of his debut, before he was stretchered off with an ankle injury. Out for a month, he was nearing fitness when a training ground challenge from ex-Portsmouth and Sunderland lump Sulley Muntari aggravated the injury, and the young Dutchman missed a further two months.
Forced to kick his heels on the sidelines upon his recovery, it was April before he got the chance to show what he could do, and this time he grasped the nettle, starting all of the team’s last 11 games. As his confidence grew, so did his influence, and he became Milan’s best creative midfield option, scoring against Roma, providing two assists against Torino and taking man of the match honours against Sampdoria. As his partnership with countryman Nigel de Jong took root, he showed his flair for picking a forward pass and important strength in the air, as well as in tackles and interceptions. Manager Pippo Inzaghi wanted to keep him, but the erstwhile born-offside poacher pixie was dismissed before any deal could be discussed.
So he finds himself in the Potteries, in what could prove a defining season for him. He is here to play, make no mistake. The loan deal has been structured so that the more he features, the less we have to pay, and he has an extremely gobby agent likely to raise hell if he should spend much time out of the side. It appears we have tasked him with the almighty (arguably thankless) mission to replace Steven Nzonzi.
But what kind of midfielder is he?
Interestingly, this is the second time he’s signed up to a ‘mini Barcelona’ project, Stokealona having been proceeded by ex-Blaugrana right back Albert Ferrer’s disastrous ‘little Barca’ strategy at Vitesse. He has been described as a midfielder with a ‘Spanish philosophy’, and that, plus his own comparisons to the cultured, unhurried Schweinsteiger might suggest a player markedly different to the all-action Nzonzi. However, his best spells at Vitesse and Milan have seen him play very much as a box to box driving force and important aerial presence, which seems far closer to the Nzonzi blueprint, with the added bonus of a regular goal threat.
His versatility is much-vaunted, but the experiment of playing him in an advanced role wasn’t successful in the Netherlands, and it was curious that he was used in that position on his debut against Liverpool.
His start at Stoke has been low-key (that nasty business with the penalty in Singapore aside) and he is yet to really influence a game in the way his predecessor did. We have to be patient though. We’re talking about a 22-year-old who prior to this season had played less than an hour in English football. It won’t happen for him overnight, just as it didn’t at Vitesse or Milan. Early showings have been mixed. He started brightly against Liverpool but faded. He was practically invisible at Spurs and Norwich. Ironically, the first glimpses we’ve really seen we in the adversity of the nine-man battle against West Brom, where he showed energy and purpose in bringing the ball out of danger and into the opposition half. There is surely more to come.
His pedigree suggests that given time his quality will shine through. You don’t impress Mourinho and van Gaal easily.