Pep Biel: the next Zinckernagel?
On September 1st, Olympiacos announced the signing of 26-year-old Spanish attacking midfielder, Pep Biel, from FC Copenhagen. Biel wasn’t exactly a household name in Greece, minus the few football nerds out there who knew of his accolades at Copenhagen. One look at his numbers from last season in Denmark though and it’s enough to understand: we picked up a gem!
Olympiacos forked out €6million to bring Biel to Piraeus! The last time Thrylos paid anything close to that kind of money was for…. Bjorn Engels, who arrived on a reported fee of €8million from Club Brugge. Biel’s signing was seen as a statement of intent a few weeks after Olympiacos were sent packing out of the Champions League by Maccabi Haifa. Fair to say that, even the most optimistic of optimists didn't believe we could attract a player like Biel to Olympiacos: a player entering the peak years of his career after a stellar season at Copenhagen.
Before arriving this summer, Biel led Copenhagen to the Group Stages of the Champions League, scoring 6 goals and serving 3 assists in 9 games at the start of the season! Impressive! So why on earth does a player like that leave a Champions League team to come and play in Greece for an Olympiacos team that’s just been embarrassed by Maccabi Haifa? Olympiacos is still a massive club on the European stage, with a rich history and formidable fan base.
The team’s coach – at the time – Carlos Corberan believed Pep Biel was the answer to Olympiacos’ lack of penetration in the final third. Sidenote: when Copenhagen signed Biel from Zaragoza there was a clause in the deal stipulating that if Copenhagen made it to the Champions League Group Stages with Biel, an additional fee would have to be paid to Zaragoza. That’s certainly a factor that played a part in the move as did the relationship of the Olympiacos management with the football agents over at ICM Stellar Sports. A quick look at their books and you’ll see names like Morgan Gibbs White, Dean Henderson, Moussa Niakhaté, Omar Richards: all Nottingham Forest players, a club owned by the same owner as Olympiacos. Fun fact: ICM Stellar have another Olympiacos player on their books, Cédric Bakambu, a player that whose market value was €8million when he arrived on a free transfer from Marseille in mid-September.
The Olympiacos number 10
Back to Pep Biel. With Kostas Fortounis situation up in the air and Mathieu Valbuena ageing (like a good red wine), Pep Biel was handed the reigns immediately by Corberan. His introduction to the Olympiacos faithful at the Karaiskaki came on 3rd September two days after his arrival. How did it go? 75 minutes on the pitch 1 goal and 1 assist in a 3-1 victory. Not bad. Corberan had found his man. Olympiacos had found their number 10, most thought. In total, Biel has played 8 games for Olympiacos since joining. He hasn’t scored or assisted in any since that game against Ionikos. Why’s that?
On 15th September, Olympiacos announced the signing of Colombian attacking midfielder, James Rodriguez. Now, that’s a name almost all Olympiacos fans know. And we all know how much of a sucker an Olympiacos fan is for a big name! We’ve seen some incredible foreign players arrive over the years: Giovanni, Rivaldo, Karembeu, Ze Elias, Zetterberg, Touré. Don’t forget Marcelo who Olympiacos signed on 3 September. His unveiling to Olympiacos fans at the Karaiskaki is probably the most joy Olympiacos fans have experienced this season.
So, James Rodrigues arrives. A 31-year-old player remembered as one of, if not ‘the’ World Cup Star of 2014. A player that had spent the past few seasons in exile in Qatar. A player with a point to prove? At 31 he’s far from finished and let’s get one thing straight, the author of this article has no intention of opening a discussion about his quality. It’s undeniable. However, when you bring in a player like that, you have to play him. And what position does he play? The same as Pep Biel.
So, what happens to Pep Biel now?
Olympiacos have 5 players that can play at the 10 spot: James, Biel, Valbuena, Fortounis and Aguibou who played in that position most of last season. Kasami and Inbeom Hwang can also play in this position. Since James Rodriguez’s arrival, Biel has only played 2 games as a number 10: both in Europe where Rodriguez is ineligible as he didn’t sign in time to make it onto the UEFA list. In both games, Olympiacos got drummed 3-0 by Freiburg and Qarabag.
Hard to blame Biel, a new player who had to play with different midfield pairings in the league and in Europe. M’Vila and Inbeom Hwang in Greece, then Bouchalakis and Kunde in Europe. The chopping and changing, both on and off the pitch, hasn’t helped his adjustment to life in Greece. While some players are playing for a 3rd coach this season, Biel is one who’s known two: Corberan who brought him in, and now, Michel Gonzalez, another fellow Spaniard.
With Olympiacos desperate to put together a consistent 11 and a functioning team with specific roles out of 40+ players on a bloated roster, Greek reports indicate that Michel has figured out his pecking order for the 10 position. James Rodriguez is the number one pick. Valbuena is the 1st sub. Then comes Biel.
As I said, when you have a player like James, you have to play him. But, when you’ve paid €6 million for a player like Biel, you have to play him too. James is on a 1+1 contract and it’s not certain he will stay next year or whether the option is his choice or the clubs. Biel has signed a multi-annual deal. He’s an investment and a dear one at that. So, is the solution to play him on the wings and try and fit both players in the team? Can Michel find a way of getting both players to play and switch roles during the game and forge a partnership? We’d love to see that. But while Michel is known for his ability to motivate and deal with star players having been one himself, he’s not known for his tactical prowess.
The case of Philip Zinckernagel
Why the comparison with Zinckernagel? Because Zinck was asked to play out of his optimal position from day one at Olympiacos. And now, we’re asking the same of Biel and the media in Greece are already starting to criticise Biel’s performances when he’s played on the wings. How can you expect a player to play to the best of his abilities when you keep changing his position on the pitch or when you quite simply play him out of position?
Ask anyone in Denmark, they’ll tell you: Biel’s best position is as a 10. Corberan knew it. His team mate at Copenhagen and Greek international Zeca knows it. The Danish press know it. When Biel joined Copenhagen he was initially deployed as winger and he had a very difficult time at the start of his stint at Copenhagen. That is, until he started playing as a 10 or as a false 9 more recently where he proved prolific in front of goal. Yet we never saw him at Olympiacos as false 9 even when Youssef El Arabi was out through injury with Bakambu unavailable in Europe. Could Biel as a false 9 and James as a 10 be something we see at Olympiacos? At the moment, it doesn’t look likely. The most plausible scenario is that Biel will be thrown out onto the wings, in a position where he doesn’t perform as well. Olympiacos have very few effective options on the wings. Both Konrad de la Fuente and Josh Bowler, signed on loan this summer, are out of favour and haven’t seen a minute of football since Michel joined.
Zinckernagel came to Olympiacos with hopes and dreams. Signed for €2million from Watford after helping Nottingham Forest get promoted to the Premier League, he came to Olympiacos to play in the Champions League and fight for a place at the World Cup with Denmark. His first game at Olympiacos, like Biel, he got off to a flyer, scoring the opening goal in a 1-1 draw against Maccabi in the opening game of the season: a 1st leg Champions League 2nd round qualification tie. But throughout his brief time at Olympiacos before being loaned out to Standard Liege on 7th September, he never played in his best position. Under Pedro Martins, he started out on the left and under Corberan he was used as a 10 behind a lone striker. A quick look on transfermarkt, you’ll see that this is a player who performs best when deployed on the right, further up the pitch or as a 10 behind 2 strikers as he was used at Forest. We’re seeing it now at Standard Liege where he has found his form.
So what’s my point? Olympiacos cannot afford to let Pep Biel share the same fate as Philip Zinckernagel. Olympiacos cannot afford to treat Pep Biel like they treated Zinckernagel. Olympiacos cannot afford to throw money down the toilet. Biel is a significant investment. As is Doron Leidner, another player that was signed for €2million plus €500k in add-ons. Both players are young, with potential. Players that can launch their careers at Olympiacos. The club can potentially make huge financial profit from these investments, IF the club knows how to utilise them and get the most out of them. Olympiacos has many challenges to deal with this season in what may well be the most difficult season in the club’s modern era. The Biel story here is but one of the challenges but it taps into one of the bigger questions and challenges the club is facing: what’s the plan? What kind of team are we building for the future? And who are the right pieces we need to build that brighter future? I don’t have the answers. We’ll just have to wait and see.
PS. I would’ve liked to see Biel and Zinckernagel in the same team. Maybe we still could?