Forgotten Footballers: Belarus’ Alexander Hleb

Written by Nathan Shepherd

Alexander Hleb arguably had the qualities necessary to be a complete midfielder.

Alexander Hleb arguably had the qualities necessary to be a complete midfielder. He had the balance and agility to take on defenders with complete confidence and ease to give his side the edge in attack. He had the vision and passing capability to set up all of his teams’ goals and so top the assist chart at the end of a season.

If that wasn’t enough, he was versatile to play anywhere across the midfield, on either wing he could still whip in a cross that could catch the opposition’s defence off guard. But most of all, he was a playmaker, a record breaker, a Gunner.

Name: Alexander Hleb

Age: 32

Position: Attacking midfielder/Winger

Clubs: FC Dinamo-Juni Minsk, FC BATE Borisov, VfB Stuttgart, Arsenal, FC Barcelona, Birmingham City, VfL Wolfsburg, FC Krylia Sovetov Samara, Torku Konyaspor 

Country: Belarus

Born with it

Born and raised in Minsk, the capital and largest city of Belarus, Hleb played on the concrete pitches for local side FC Dinamo-Juni Minsk, the reserve team of FC Dinamo Minsk. Here he played in the Belarusian First League (the second division of football in Belarus) making 11 appearances and scoring one goal. 

His ability to dodge and weave defenders soon caught the attention of rivals BATE Borisov, the big boys of Belarus, who snapped up a young but clearly talented Hleb at the age of 17 in 1999. The midfielder made the step up to play in the top division of professional football in Belarus, the Belarusian Premier League. In his first season, Alexander played 13 games and scored one goal to help BATE lift their first Vysheyshaya Liga.

In his second season, he played 12 games and scored three goals, BATE finished second, failing to defend their league title. 

During his three years playing in Belarus as a teenager, Hleb made 36 appearances and scored five goals for both Dinamo-Juni Minsk and BATE. He started to make a name for himself in his homeland playing for club and now country, he won over 30 caps for the Under-21 Belarusian national team, and the scouts came flocking. 

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

So in the summer of 2000, Hleb was signed by German side VfB Stuttgart. At only 19 years of age, he first had to impress in the reserve team VfB Stuttgart II, in the 3. Liga (the third division of football in Germany) before being called up to the first-team. In his first year, after 17 games and one goal with the reserve team along with nine testing appearances in the first team, the Belarusian did more than enough to permanently play in the German top division, the Bundesliga. 

Now a certified regular at the club, from here onwards Hleb managed to get over 30 games under his belt per season. In his second season, he played 32 games, scored two goals with six assists and in his third improved a little by playing 31 games, scoring four goals with seven assists to establish himself as an important player for the team.

It was during this third year the 21-year-old became the main playmaker for Stuttgart and inspired the German side to finish runners-up in the Bundesliga 2002/03, a significant improvement compared to previous mid-season finishes. In the following season, Alexander played 31 games, scored five goals with another seven assists but Stuttgart failed to better or even equal their previous position finishing fourth. 

In the summer of 2004, manager Felix Magath left to join Bayern Munich and Stuttgart were not as successful under new head coach Matthias Sammer, finishing the 2004/05 season in fifth place. In what was to be his fifth and final season with the club, Hleb played a part in all 34 games of the Bundesliga, scored two goals and created 14 goals. This was the most assists in the league that year, a true indication of his importance in attack. 

With the club in search of another manager, came fears the side could slip back into its old mid-season ways or possibly worse, so Hleb wanted away, his wish was his own command. During his five year spell in Germany, in all competitions (DFB-Pokal Cup and Europe) he played over 170 games, scoring 19 goals with over 40 assists for Stuttgart. 

Did you know?

Alexander Hleb was called “Zauberlehrling” (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) for his tricks and flicks in Germany when he played in the Bundesliga. 

Time for change

A star of the Bundesliga, in the summer of 2005, Hleb was on the radar of a number of clubs. His control, trickery and ability to create goal scoring opportunities soon saw him a highly-rated player. It was Arsene Wenger who managed to tempt the Belarusian to Arsenal, signing a four-year contract worth an apparent £8 million with the English Premier League side. He looked an exciting prospect for the Gunners, and a perfect fit for the new team Wenger was building to continue the legacy of the 03/04 Invincibles. 

In his first season, the 24-year-old had taken a while to get going at Arsenal, his natural and preferred position is attacking midfielder or ‘in the hole’ behind the strikers, but Wenger converted Hleb into a winger. Soon after getting in the swing of things, he sustained a knee injury on international duty with Belarus and was out of action for several months, later returning to the first team squad in December. 

By January 2006, he was a regular in the first team again and started scoring his first few goals for the club. His first, at Highbury, in a 7-0 win over Middlesbrough, then one each in further home wins against Charlton and West Bromwich Albion. Arsenal finished the 2005/06 season fourth, Alexander played 25 games and scored 3 goals. Not long after, he became the first ever Belarusian footballer to play in a Champions League final for Arsenal, they lost 2-1 to FC Barcelona. 

The 2006/07 season started well for Hleb, especially whilst playing in the Champions League. During a qualifier against Dinamo Zagreb, he grabbed two assists in a 3-0 victory. He then scored his fourth goal in September at Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium in a 2-0 win over FC Porto during the group stages. The Belarusian was quickly becoming an impact player for Wenger’s side, and gaining respect from the fans at the same time. A month later, he scored against Reading in the league, after playing an impressive three pass combination with Tomáš Rosický, this was also his first away goal. 

In December, the midfielder scored Arsenal’s second goal against Blackburn Rovers to put the Gunners back in the lead in a game they went on to win 6-2. He was then unfortunately absent from the team sheet for weeks/months due to a hamstring injury, although he still managed to play 33 games, score two goals with five assists come the end of the season. Arsenal finished the 2006/07 season in fourth place, again, for the second season in a row. 

In the summer of 2007, Hleb was moved from the flanks to play behind Robin Van Persie to try and create more goals as well as score some. He looked more comfortable in this position and better still more of a threat to the opposition. This was shown when he scored a last gasp winner against Fulham to seal a 2-1 victory. He followed this up in the next game, netting again late on in a Champions League third round qualifier against Sparta Prague, Arsenal won 2-0. Then against Manchester City, Hleb dribbled brilliantly past two defenders into the penalty area to assist Cesc Fabregas in scoring the winning goal (1-0). 

However, after those fine moments, Hleb’s performances near the end of the season notably dropped. His third year with the Gunners was also cut short after charged with violent conduct and banned for three games by the FA for slapping defender Graeme Murty of Reading during a game. This was the last time he played for Arsenal, they finished third in the league and here Hleb played 31 games, scoring two goals with 11 assists. 

Alexander Hleb was a fan favourite, they were in praise for the effort he brought to the team. He was most effective at linking-up play cleverly in midfield, whether through pinpoint passing or dribbling, while he waited for reinforcements to arrive, in which the ball stuck to his foot. Although he seemed unsettled, publicly blasting his manager and team-mates for their ‘ideas about football’ ensured he was to leave Arsenal. During his three year spell in England, in all competitions (FA Cup and League Cup) he played over 120 games, scored 10 goals with over 15 assists. 

Big mistake

In the summer of 2008, Spanish giants Barcelona made a move for Hleb. He soon underwent a medical at the Nou Camp, and later penned a four-year contract for a fee reported in the £13 million range. It seemed a great move for the Belarusian, then aged 27, in the ‘peak years’ of his career and a decent investment by The Catalans. 

However, in his first season, Hleb struggled to make Pep Guardiola’s first team plans and spent most of his time on the bench for Barcelona. In his defence, it’s difficult to get into a midfield with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Yaya Toure and Sergio Busquets. Though a lack of confidence and inconsistent form on his part, unsurprisingly was a result of a sporadic season.  

By March 2009, halfway through his first season and barely playing, Alexander wanted out. Unhappy at making just five league starts he admitted he would willingly accept an offer from German Bundesliga side Bayern Munich, if such an opportunity arose in the summer. 

He was a part of the club that went on to win the treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League) later that year. He became the first ever Belarusian footballer to win a Champions League final. Though, the medals may have been a nice touch, they didn’t mean a thing to Hleb if he didn’t really take part. He featured briefly in the Copa del Rey final but didn’t even make the bench for Barcelona’s 2-0 Champions League victory over Manchester United.  

He played 19 games in La Liga, 36 in all competitions (Copa del Rey and Europe) but most as a sub with no goals and a handful of assists. 

At the end of the season, Barcelona were keen to offload him but not without recouping some of his transfer fee. They slapped a price tag on Alexander but failed to gain any interest or attention. Bayern Munich ignored his earlier cries for help and so a series of loan deals fast became the only option, during his next three seasons under Barcelona. 

This only led to further unsuccessful spells with former club VfB Stuttgart (2009), Premier League side Birmingham City (2010) and another German side, VfL Wolfsburg (2011). At all three clubs his playing time was restricted by persistent injuries but even when he was match fit he struggled to find form. The Belarusian was mostly used as a substitute, and all three clubs even considered ending his loan early they were so disappointed with him. In total, during his three yearly loans the midfielder played 60 games and scored just four goals.  

Who wants me?

Hleb returned to the Nou Camp at the end of 2011, and in January had his contract cancelled by mutual consent, with six months remaining.

A free agent, over the next two years he tried his luck again on loan in Russia with Krylia Sovetov Samara but failed to impress (eight games and no goals) and back to Belarus with former club BATE Borisov but was always longing a move to Bayern Munich (29 games and three goals). Nowadays, Hleb plies his trade in Turkey with Torku Konyasport in the Turkish Super League, he signed for one and a half years with an option to extend his contract for an additional year. 

In the end, it’s been rather frustrating for Alexander Hleb post Arsenal, inconsistent, injured, and unhappy with six different clubs in the space of four years. His recent career has pretty much seen him warming the bench and arguing with managers to suffer a dramatic dip in star status for club and country. A former captain of Belarus too, Hleb has over 60 caps and six goals over 14 consecutive years (2001-2014) for his beloved country. 

Leaving Arsenal was arguably the right time but just the wrong move. Even Hleb himself now claims the biggest regret of his life was leaving The Emirates. But this is too little, too late. To this day, Arsenal fans are hurt by the way he engineered his transfer and he epitomizes those players thinking of leaving Arsenal for ‘better things’. 

So having slipped under the radar, aged 32, unfortunately it is unlikely we will see Alexander Hleb in the Premier League again. He will be remembered by fans for never shooting and his love of passing even when the goal was in sight, but that wasn’t exactly his game. This shows in a somewhat paltry goal return in games for all clubs he has played for. 

He has the talent, he graced the game, he hasn’t won the Belarusian Footballer of the Year six times for nothing, he just lost the spark he once had. On his day, he is a joy to watch. A midfield maestro in his prime, as they say, form is temporary, class is permanent.

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Image: Google