Leeds United: Adryan can escape Zico’s long shadow

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In the Pink: Brazilian Adryan has lived long in the shadow of world-famous Flamengo no.10 Zico but could well shine at Leeds. Phil Hay reports.

Flamengo were Zico’s club, as their supporters in Rio de Janiero never tire of reminding people. The revered number 10 is a badge of honour for them – and a long shadow over any player who follows him.

Three or four years ago, Adryan was lumbered with the title of ‘The Next Zico’ as Flamengo’s production line pushed him into view. The club pride themselves on youth development and have a particular love for playmakers. Zico, the ‘White Pele’, was the original and the best.

Adryan, or Adryan Oliveira Tavares to give him his full name, started out as a Brazilian prodigy. Nowadays in his homeland they wonder what happened to him. His transfer on loan to Leeds United was not exactly make-or-break but his potential remains remarkably untapped.

“It’s a fascinating moment for him,” says Tim Vickery, a respected expert on South American football. “This wasn’t how we saw his career going.”

Vickery remembers the Adryan who began catching eyes in 2010. He was raw, skilful and baby-faced, boasting a youthful complexion which has barely changed. He debuted for Flamengo as a teenager and became the talk of the club after shining with Brazil at the Under-17 World Cup.

“Flamengo are Zico’s club,” Vickery says. “Historically they’ve had a reputation for producing their own talent and Zico is the biggest example. Because of that, every playmaker who comes through the system has to suffer the curse of being ‘The Next Zico.’

“Adryan is a proper number 10. He strikes the ball beautifully, he chooses his passes and he meets your expectations of a player in that position. But he was also very raw and for a time he was in a Flamengo team who struggled. He started going backwards and having looked like a big talent at first, he began to look like a bit of a dreamboat.

“It happens a lot with Brazilian prodigies. They’re talked up to an extreme level and sometimes through no fault of their own, the expectation is made to look like hot air. In the end, the wonder-kid status isn’t performance-based. So there are huge question marks against him in Brazil – which is why the move to Leeds is so interesting.”

Massimo Cellino, Leeds United’s owner, fought for that signing like few others. A complicated deal required Cagliari to break Adryan’s 18-month loan from Flamengo and allow the Brazilian club to send him onto Elland Road. How much the process cost Cellino is not clear but he plans to pay £3m to make Adryan’s move permanent next summer.

Adryan did not play regularly in Sardinia – five appearances in total – but he settled well and was comfortable in his surroundings. Journalists who watched him said he was happy and content; an infectious member of the squad who showed no signs of homesickness.

“He has great imagination,” says one reporter in Cagliari. “He’s a great talent – someone who could become a great footballer.”

The 20-year-old made his debut for Leeds in an Under-21 fixture at Thorp Arch on Monday and has been cleared for a first-team debut at Birmingham City on Saturday. Cellino sees one position for him – in behind one or two strikers – but both Italian and Brazilian football foster the traditional playmaker. English football, particularly in the Championship, has a habit of crowding them out.

“Defensive lines in Brazil play very deep so number 10s have all the space they need,” Vickery says. “English football is different and I wonder if Leeds might find that they get more out of Adryan in a wide role. He’s not got the express pace you need to beat a man but he’s got a booming right foot and Leeds might get more out of him on the wing than they would in the conventional number 10 role. It’s not that you can’t have number 10s in the Championship but they don’t get anywhere near as much freedom as Adryan got in Brazil.”

The tricks up Adryan’s sleeve are his inherent skill and the speed of his feet. Neil Redfearn, United’s caretaker manager, saw those assets during Monday’s development-squad game against Ipswich Town, a match in which Adryan completed 80 minutes.

“It’s all new to him and this was only his first game for us,” Redfearn said, “but he showed some great touches. There were six or seven times when he got caught in tight situations and got himself out of trouble.

“He’s a lovely kid who loves the game and trains hard. He’s got massive potential and although he’s a young lad, we can use him as we need to use him. Giving him a game and a little initiation was important.”

The Brazilian has been nothing but enthusiastic about his move to Leeds, describing this as “one of the most important weeks of my life.” There was a stage two years ago when Adryan was linked with several major European side, though Vickery credits those reports to a “canny agent”.

“All of that was based on potential,” he says. “It happens a lot and I’m not sure how much I’d read into them.”

Adryan, all the same, is a Brazilian Under-20 international whose ability is not open to dispute. He merely grew up in a country which constantly asks who its next big thing will be – and at a club who are always looking for Zico’s successor.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Vickery says, “and he’s had other pressures too. He became a father at a very young age – at an age where he really looked like a baby himself. Three or four years ago he was seen as a big sensation in Brazil but he found it hard at Flamengo and if we’re being honest, he didn’t do too much at Cagliari either.

“Some people in Brazil – and maybe a few people around him – will look at Leeds as a second step backwards for him because he’s gone to Italy where it didn’t really work out, and now he’s moved to England’s second division. You’ve got history and tradition at Leeds United but back home, it’s not what they expect of a supposed wonder-kid.

“So this move is really fascinating. I don’t think it’s make-or-break but it needs to go well. Despite his size, I can’t seem him being overpowered in the Championship and the pace of the English game might be the only thing that troubles him.

“But the biggest question I’d ask is ‘where is he mentally?’ If he’s in a good frame of mind then his time in England should be worth following.”