By Tom Nightingale, special to Waking the Red
In October 2013, three months after signing him for Swansea City, Michael Laudrup wasn’t afraid to draw a comparison between Alejandro Pozuelo and one of the Premier League’s new leading stars.
“I think he can do here what (Philippe) Coutinho has done at Liverpool,” the then-Swans boss, regarded by many as one of the greatest footballers never to win a Ballon d’Or, proclaimed.
“I remember when Coutinho arrived from Inter he had a lot to learn, but now he is one of the most important players at Liverpool. With time, Pozuelo can do the same here because he has the same ability with the ball, same ability in finding space, being good one-on-one and having very good vision, and we know he has two good feet because we don’t know if he is right- or left-footed.”
Laudrup’s managerial ability, alas, has not reflected his playing class, and ultimately the books will suggest he was wrong about Pozuelo in South Wales. But the Spaniard’s time in Swansea offers several hints for Toronto FC fans looking to get some early insight into the club’s third and newest Designated Player, signed on Monday after weeks of pursuit in a big early boost for new GM Ali Curtis.
The attacking midfielder would play 22 Premier League games for the Swans, failing to hit the net but providing three assists. Signed as an exciting component in the Spanish experiment at the Liberty Stadium, he was no artistic figurehead like Michu, but broad brushstrokes of underachievement don’t paint the whole picture.
At the time, the Coutinho comparisons weren’t as outlandish as they seem now, either.
“Pozuelo looked very composed whenever he played for Swansea and played in a similar position to the Liverpool man, who was, at that stage of his career, not the superstar he is today,” says Mat Davies, head of football at WalesOnline and a leading voice on Swansea City.
“They were similar physically and in the way they carried themselves ... His best asset was his close control. He was good with both feet and he had an eye for a pass. A neat and tidy player.”
Laudrup knew what he wanted from his signing, but at just 21 when he was brought in, Pozuelo perhaps made the big cultural transition (significant even at 2013’s Spanish-scented Swans) too early in his career. However, despite his relative lack of end product — both of his Swansea goals were scored off the bench in Europa League qualifying clashes again unfancied clubs in August, the first coming on his debut in white — Pozuelo’s early time at Swansea offers much to be optimistic about for TFC disciples.
His undeniable talents as a technically proficient link-up man were perhaps on fullest display during Swansea’s remarkable 3-0 win over Valencia at the Mestalla that year. Pozuelo was in full flight, being involved in the buildup to all three goals and looking as at home as he ever did in Laudrup’s side. On other occasions, both at Swansea and, mainly, since moving to Belgium, Pozuelo has proven himself a dangerous force both coming in from wide and floating around the edge of the box.
However, things went sharply downhill at Swansea after the new year. The beginning of the premature end came when Laudrup, Pozuelo’s chief backer, was replaced by Swansea stalwart Garry Monk in early February. Monk, a hugely popular former club captain, promptly inspired his team to a 3-0 South Wales derby win over Cardiff City four days after being appointed as interim boss, a match for which Pozuelo was not even named on the bench. That set the tone; the Spaniard would play a total of eight minutes in the final four months of the season.
“Pozuelo left at the end of that campaign, with new boss Monk preferring more established names with a bit more about them,” adds Davies. “He was young when he was here and up against more seasoned professionals.”
That sad situation would have weighed heavily on many a young star. However, Pozuelo recovered and found a new lease on life in Belgium in recent years. That will be viewed with skepticism by some — the Jupiler Pro League is far from the most prestigious of European top flights — but to dismiss stats and performances in that league would be to scratch the likes of the gone-but-never-forgotten Victor Vazquez from the record.
Pozuelo may not have the same lasting impact VV had in Toronto — for every Vazquez, there’s an Ager Aketxe — but Reds fans will likely see much of Vazquez’s USP replicated in Pozuelo. Like El Mago, too, Pozuelo also has a significant technical training background to draw upon, one which should elevate his prestige — and raise his ceiling — as an MLS newcomer. Throw in the fact he’s only 27, an age at which he should be flourishing in the prime of his career, and this is a signing with considerable upside.
Aside from a tendency to eschew the defensive side of his wing play, what seems to be the biggest flaw in Pozuelo’s game?
“His biggest drawback (for Swansea) was his physicality or lack thereof,” Davies explains, although on that point he does add a qualifier: “To be honest, though, that’s not what you want from your more creative players.”
At TFC, it’s unlikely to be too much of an issue. The Reds have their physicality in midfield and attack in the likes of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Nick DeLeon. What they need more of is the guile, ingenuity, and sheer technical and game-changing ability contributed by the departing duo of Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco, and Pozuelo should offer that in spades.
It also seems Pozuelo has been working on that weakness in his game.
“I saw a bit of him with Genk in the Europa League and he seems to have bulked up a bit, a natural physical development as he’s got older,” Davies continues. “He was named in a couple of teams of the round in that competition. His longevity there suggests he was important to the team.”
Indeed, Pozuelo has served as Genk’s captain this season, adding another leader to Toronto’s ranks, and his importance to Genk was reflected in the time it took TFC brass to tie up the deal.
Pozuelo’s signing comes at a cost — some reports have TFC breaking their transfer record in completing the deal — but with great potential reward. Pozuelo has the talent and attributes to be a roaring success at BMO Field. At first, at least, he slotted perfectly into what that 2013-14 Swansea side was meant to represent — swagger, verve, and technical ability. At Genk, he has scored 25 goals and added some 60 assists in five seasons, and may well increase both tallies before leaving Europe for Canada in a couple of weeks.
“He was a typical Swansea City player for that era — very good on the ball, slick passing, a little lightweight but when on song, a joy to watch,” Davies concludes. “He wasn’t given enough opportunities but Pablo Hernandez and Michu played in his position; at his age and experience level, he was never going to displace them.”
Therein lies a fundamental difference in the situation he enters now. At TFC, a club currently devoid in the first XI of both a true winger and a replacement for Vazquez in central attacking midfield, Pozuelo arrives with the status — both reputationally and, yes, financially — to become a leading star in the team and, potentially, a contender to win the Newcomer of the Year award for which Vazquez wasn’t even considered.
He’s already played 41 games this season for Genk and of course, there’s great pressure on his shoulders. Onlookers and supporters must resist the temptation to compare Pozuelo, Giovinco’s successor in the No. 10 shirt, directly to the Atomic Ant or Vazquez. In truth, though, the club may have just recruited a player capable of the same kind of seismic impact. If he does enough to reignite the Coutinho comparisons, the pain of this season’s headline off-season losses will be soothed.