An old maxim says that a professional is an amateur who didn’t quit. There is an aspect to this sentiment, though, that makes us want to fulminate: whether to retain the allusion that celebrity is something that is so far above us that we cannot be blamed for having not reached it or, alternatively, because it takes something away from whatever achievements we have to our names.
But for the majority of footballers, this is the reality. In many respects, the latent talent is not one of intrinsic ability on the ball or capacity to understand the game but the faculty for sacrifice: to go back to the training ground when to do so seems worthless, to forego a social gathering to put more time in at the gym or, indeed, to put your career first ahead of your own needs in the present.
Take Nabil Bentaleb, for example. In 2009, at the tender age of 15, the child of Algerian immigrants was released by the academy of his local academy club in Lille and moved to Belgium to play for a third division side, R. E. Mouscron. Within a few months, however, the club were declared bankrupt and soon ceased to exist. Once again, the youngster was displaced, clubless and still chasing his dreams.
These are the moments that go unnoticed against the background opulence of the Premier League – where each individual seems born for greatness and their pedigree never in doubt. As for Bentaleb, his nomadic existence continued: a couple of seasons along the Belgian border at USL Dunkerque and he still seemed no closer to achieving his aspirations. Where Belgium was proving unproductive, perhaps the United Kingdom would offer more of an opportunity? A trial period at Birmingham City later and the young Algerian found himself signing papers for his indenture at the academy of one of the biggest football clubs in the world: Tottenham Hotspur. By the age of 17, Nabil Bentaleb had played for five clubs across three countries. Sacrifice. Deprivation.
And yet it looked like it was all about to play off.
Breaking into Tottenham’s under-21 side in his first season at the club, the only way seemed to be upwards for the youngster. With fourteen games and four goals under his belt, Bentaleb was awarded a four-year contract by the end of the season. And yet, despite this glimmering of hope that he was about to make a grand in the senior squad,
Bentaleb would come away with only 66 appearances in all competitions, only breaking the twenty-
game mark in one of those seasons and finishing up with a single goal to his name. In many respects, the teenager felt stunted at Spurs. When asked about it later, he freely admitted as much.
‘When I played as a number six at Tottenham, they wanted… reliability in the centre of the pitch, to always protect, to create the game but deeper, so I was not in the final third. I was creating from the back and passing the ball through the lines, but not the lines to give an assist.”
Once again sacrifice. Deprivation. And, as so often before, the solution proved to be the same: move on.
When Schalke came knocking, Bentaleb needed no second invitation, quickly adding Germany to the list of countries in which he had plied his trade. The 2016/17 season was a season of contrasts for the by-then- 21-year- old: where Schalke had a poor season by their standards, eventually finishing 10th in the Bundesliga, Bentaleb had his best season in professional football to date, finally breaking the elusive 40-games- in-a- season hoodoo and scoring seven goals in the process. The change that brought about this transformation was tactical. Talking about the 2016/17 season in interviews, the young Algerian has noted that his game benefited from a certain freedom in the midfield area.
‘When [Schalke] asked me to play more forward, it made me realize that I can do both. I added something to my game,’ he said to DW’s Jon Harding. ‘Inside, I knew I could but nobody gave me the chance until I arrived here… In Schalke, I’m most often in the final third and I’m trying to find those last passes or last two passes, or even try to score. That’s the difference.’
In the summer at the end of the season, Markus Weinzierl was relieved from his position as Schalke manager having had a disappointing tenure at the club. Once again, Nabil Bentaleb found himself facing a future riven with indeterminacy, still uncertain of where his career would take him.
Since the arrival of Domenico Tedesco, the uncertainty hasn’t exactly dissipated. Since the beginning of the season, Bentaleb has played six times at a return of three goals. So far, so prolific. However, from the opening day he had been reverted to a more defensively-minded position, playing as one of a midfield two in Tedesco’s favoured 3-4- 3 formation. Any freedom that he had felt last season may have to be tempered for the time being.
Having picked up a calf strain on Matchday Five, Bentaleb spent the majority of the next few games on the bench, making a cameo appearance in a more attacking role against Wolfsburg where he picked up his third goal of the season. The insecurity hasn’t gone away, then, but Nabil Bentaleb will deal with whatever life throws at him in his usual manner: Sacrifice. Deprivation. Moving on. An old maxim says that a professional is an amateur who didn’t quit. By that definition, Nabil Bentaleb is the consummate professional.
By: Jon Mackenzie/@Jon_Mackenzie