Norwich City fans can rightly start to be excited about Ricky van Wolfswinkel
PUBLISHED: 10:22 10 April 2013 | UPDATED: 17:40 12 April 2013
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With record signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel joining Norwich City in the summer, Michael Bailey spent last week in Lisbon to get the full picture on the Dutch striker.
It almost happened in January, and it was confirmed in March – yet it still left a question: What exactly was Norwich City’s greatest outlay of cash buying them?
Sporting Lisbon’s primary goal-scoring entity and Netherlands striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel was hot property, despite the Lions’ perilous financial position.
At 24 years old, he still has as much time as he needs to fulfil his potential – potential that cost City £8.5m initially, with up to a further £1.7m due to Sporting should he deliver on a few added clauses. The add-ons alone are close to half the value of City’s previous big buys.
So what can City expect from ‘De Lobo’ – or as those in Portugal say, the Wolf whose path the Lions follow?
Usually it isn’t big or clever trying to judge a player on just 90 minutes. So rest assured that while watching RVW in action against Primeira Liga strugglers Moreirense was part of the deal, it acted more like a typical example rather than the sole case study.
But in truth, either stance points at plenty to get excited about once Van Wolfswinkel pulls on a yellow shirt.
And maybe this is the time for another caveat – after all, we are still not sure which division City will be playing in next season.
Likewise, we don’t know how that will affect RVW’s position. Those in Portugal, outside of Sporting, are equally in the dark. All we have are reassurances from the City board that the striker is joining Norwich City, not the Premier League. One thing is for sure, RVW’s movement would be wasted on the Championship.
The striker has played almost all season as the Lions’ lone striker – something Sporting’s goal chart exemplifies.
With players indulging in injury-feigning, with an outpouring of stories from each club every day in the press, supporters who know only how to whip their world into a frenzy, and more referee posturing than Mark Clattenburg could handle, Portuguese football is pure theatre.
And that hands RVW the lead role at Sporting. A reluctant hero. A loner, isolated, and left with what often looks an impossible job – scoring goals for a struggling side.
He arrived in Portugal from Utrecht in 2011 with the rather loose moniker of ‘the next Robin van Persie’ – and while the claim is both bold and simplistic, Van Wolfswinkel’s intelligent and at times almost graceful movement certainly hints at similarities to the lead Oranje hit man.
His runs are not really his strength, more the key to it – scoring goals. They come instinctively and within prime range of goal. RVW operates in an area no wider than the penalty area, no further back than his midfield allows.
And in that area, he darts and breaks off the shoulders of defenders, between the centre-back pairing or the channels bordered by centre-half and full-back, asking to be either played through on goal or to dispatch their service. His aim is creating space, taking a touch and getting a shot away on target.
The fact it doesn’t always come off at the moment only offers a reason why Norwich have been able to get their man ahead of the likes of Tottenham and Newcastle.
When RVW doesn’t have to make a chance for himself, then the formula for the service into him is straightforward – low or high crosses from the byline. Again, his movement ensures he can make space in a tight area if the ball is right.
He is young, yet there is no need to doubt his football intelligence.
Perhaps the big unknown is how much of Ricky’s role at Sporting is about what coach Jesualdo Ferreira demands, compared to how much the Lions play to RVW’s strengths.
The ball is rarely played to him with his back to goal; he isn’t asked to hold the ball up and bring others into play – although occasionally the chaos of a game requires RVW to do it, and he can do it well.
Sporting’s focus is solely on playing him in or setting him up. The Lions number nine’s role is scoring goals and little else – and it’s some way removed from the job of the Canaries’ current number nine.
What both players do have in common is heart. Van Wolfswinkel has four goals, one assist and two man of the match gongs in his two games since Norwich’s deal was announced. He plays with energy and he plays like he cares. No one is doubting his commitment to the Sporting cause, when it would be easy to do so – that says everything about his character.
He isn’t adverse to clearing a corner or chasing a lost cause – although Sporting minds will have been sweating over RVW’s tally of four bookings after some typical forward tackles. A fifth before next weekend would have seen Sporting’s lead man suspended for the only game that matters – Benfica.
In the end, Van Wolfswinkel kept out of trouble with relative calm. His headlines continue to be about scoring goals. A lot of goals.
What the Portuguese clubs do know is that RVW is a threat. He may be, more often than not, Sporting’s only threat and an often isolated one at that.
But it’s the kind of threat that opponents take notice of. The kind that allows the Dutchman’s movement to not only open up spaces for himself, but also for team-mates. That very factor earned Sporting their injury-time winner against Moreirense on Saturday, and kept Sporting’s recovery on track.
Should the Premier League find they are facing the same kind of threat in a yellow shirt next season, then De Lobo and the Canaries will believe that £8.5m is not only a record outlay, but a genuine bargain.