Real Madrid have signed 18-year-old Arda Güler under the noses of rivals Barcelona. Can the wonderkid go on to be the biggest star from Turkey in decades?
Turkish football has been waiting a long time for its next superstar. Some would argue Hakan Çalhanoğlu was the last, but many in Turkey feel that not since the breakthrough of Arda Turan at Galatasaray in 2004-05 has there been so much excitement about a young Turkish footballer.
With Real Madrid signing Arda Güler from Fenerbahçe under the noses of Barcelona this summer, the 18-year-old could go on to become the first Turkish player to play league football for the Spanish club since Nuri Sahin in May 2012.
So, what’s so special about Güler and why have the La Liga giants tried so hard to sign him?
Coming from the Gençlerbirliği academy, which had always been well known for its talent production, he moved on to Fenerbahçe in 2019 at the age of 14.
It didn’t take Fenerbahçe fans long to get excited about their talented youngster. Less than two minutes after coming on as a late substitute, Güler posted his first Turkish Süper Lig assist in August 2021 as a 16-year-old on his league debut – a clever shimmy of the body to evade a defender before laying the ball into the path of goalscorer Miha Zajc, late on in the win over Antalyaspor.
Minutes were limited for him that season despite the encouraging start, but Fenerbahçe did well to protect their young talent from potential scrutiny, instead giving him minutes mainly towards the end of games to experience first-team football. Overall, in 2021-22 Güler appeared for just 286 minutes across 12 matches, but his impact was encouraging. He grabbed three goals and three assists, giving Fenerbahçe a taste of things to come.
The 2022-23 campaign saw the experienced Jorge Jesus arrive at the club as manager, but Güler would have to be patient for his chance. With the departure of Mesut Özil, he was the player expected to step up and become the creative star in the Fenerbahçe side – an expectation that rose when he was handed the revered number 10 shirt.
Despite scoring two goals as a substitute in his first league appearance (and Fenerbahçe’s second game) of the season, a 6-0 win at Kasimpaşa, many expected Güler to kick on and be a regular in the side under Jesus. This didn’t happen, playing just 41 minutes of league action across six of his side’s opening 19 games in the Süper Lig.
Luckily, Güler was given minutes in the UEFA Europa League to aid his development instead. In one of those games – a November meeting with Dynamo Kyiv – he became the fourth-youngest player in the history of the competition to both score and assist, at just 17 years and 251 days old.
He had to wait until the return match against Kasimpaşa – the team he impressed against early on in 2022-23 – on 29 January to be rewarded with his first start of the league campaign, and he didn’t disappoint in the 5-1 win, creating a match-high five chances for his teammates.
The clamour to give Güler a run in the starting XI was growing fast among fans, and while he was moved back to the bench for the following two league games, he would only fail to appear in two of Fenerbahçe’s final 17 Süper Lig matches of the season.
When given the chance to show off his obvious talents, Güler was deployed wide right in Jesus’ preferred 4-1-3-2 formation despite being more of a classic number 10. Seventy-one percent of his playing time was as a right-sided midfielder/winger, while his time in a central midfield role even exceeded that spent in the attacking midfielder position.
Obviously, as a predominantly left-footed player, the Turkish youngster would often drift inside and cause damage to opponents from central areas. Of players to play at least 800 minutes of league action in Turkey last season, Güler’s 20 ball carries per 90 were the third highest among all midfielders and forwards, while he also ranked in the top 10 for ball carry distance per 90 (206m) among the same group.
Across the campaign, the teenager created 40 goalscoring chances, or one every 23 minutes. This is the best average on record by a player in a Süper Lig season (since 2014-15), surpassing Mathieu Valbuena’s efforts in 2017-18 (24 mins).
Güler also topped the league for expected assists per 90 minutes, both overall (0.42) and from open play only (0.29). If we compare these figures with players to feature for least 800 minutes in the top five European leagues in 2022-23, only a select group of players surpassed Güler’s per-90 average: Kevin De Bruyne (0.52), Lionel Messi (0.51), Edon Zhegrova (0.45), Rémy Cabella (0.43), Rayan Cherki (0.43), Neymar (0.43) and Jordi Alba (0.43). Esteemed company to keep.
He saved his most impressive creative performance of the season for last, running the show in a man of the match performance for Fenerbahçe in the 2-0 cup final win over İstanbul Başakşehir on 11 June. He created eight chances, including an assist for one of Michy Batshuayi’s two goals, to help his club to their seventh title in the competition.
Just over a week later, his stock rose even higher with an exceptional strike to open his account for the Turkish national team in their 2-0 European Championship qualification win over Wales. Coming in from the right wing and onto his brilliant left foot, Güler curled the ball past Danny Ward from outside the box. In doing so, he became the youngest player to ever score for Turkey at just 18 years and 114 days old.
There is a worry that a move to Real Madrid could be poorly timed and too early for Güler in his career, with potentially another season of improvement at Fenerbahçe favoured in order to hone his craft further. Carlo Ancelotti’s squad is already packed with talent in attacking positions and it’s unlikely that Güler would see much first team action in 2023-24, potentially going out on loan to assist his development. The only two players aged under 21 years old to make an appearance for Real Madrid in La Liga last season were Álvaro Rodríguez (75 minutes) and Eduardo Camavinga (2,001 minutes).
Conversely, the statistics suggests that Barca wouldn’t have been the worst place for him to develop. After all, only Lyon (11,153) handed more minutes to players aged under 21 than they did (8,555) among all clubs in the top five European leagues last season. Xavi put faith in his young players, with Gavi (2,541) and Alejandro Balde (2,476) among two of the top 10 for minutes played by under-21 players in Europe’s major leagues in 2022-23.
Based on the evidence so far, Güler might prove too good for Ancelotti to resist, however.