Ah, summer. The time of year when soccer players finally get to take a break from an arduously long season, relax on tropical islands with their supermodel girlfriends and watch as the transfer rumors fly thick and fast in the air around them. In the coming weeks, one who will garner lots of speculation as to the colors of the kit he will wear next season is Edin Dzeko. Yes, you read that right, Edin Dzeko: Manchester City's once-maligned, still-questioned striker who, despite staccato playing time and the immense scrutiny that comes with plying his wares in the current capital of English soccer, has made himself a key fixture at the Etihad over the past two seasons.
Residents of St. Louis and New York might recognize Dzeko from his recent starring role in Premier League Soccer: Live In America!, the two-show run featuring City and Chelsea last week. The 27-year-old Bosnian was at his goal-poaching finest during the mini tour, netting two markers in the first game and one in the second, both City victories. The goals were business as usual for Dzeko, who led the Sky Blues with 14 goals in the Premier League this year, despite starting just 16 games, 12 fewer than Carlos Tevez and six fewer than Sergio Aguero, both the first-choice strikers for the now-ousted Roberto Mancini. But the stats alone do not explain why Dzeko has been linked to first Arsenal and then Napoli as potential suitors for next season, or why many City fans, slow to warm to the lanky forward when he first came aboard, are now clamoring for him to remain with the team.
How long City will retain Dzeko's services is not clear. Sitting behind the prolific Aguero and Tevez means he will most likely continue to see spot duty if he stays in Manchester, and he could thrive with Napoli in Serie A, where his physicality would stand out in the more finesse-happy Italian league. There have been talks of swapping Dzeko for Napoli's clinical Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani, and despite Cavani's undeniable talent Napoli would not exactly be getting a raw deal. Dzeko has proven time and again that, like a locked-in sixth man in basketball, he can provide instant offense: For goals, just add minutes.
"I want to play from the beginning, but if I come from the bench I have to give my best also," said Dzeko, who last week had joined other City players at a kickaround and meet-and-greet with members of a community affected by Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island. Despite a reputation for being slightly mercurial at times, he has embraced his role as a quick fix whenever City needs to squeeze a timely goal out of a tight game. Dzeko is aware of his reputation as a super-sub, and does not begrudge it. When asked what his best technical skill is, he responded "Scoring goals" with a chuckle.
"Sometimes it was frustrating for him, to be dropped on the bench," City midfielder Yaya Toure recounted. "It's always difficult to manage that. With his age and how he has been learning, it's been unbelievable. You have to score goals, but with this kind of pressure he's continuing to manage. To have a good mind you have to be positive, but it's not always easy in football, to be honest. That's why I like [him]."
And Dzeko has come off the bench to score some very important goals for City, many of them close to the final whistle. There were the two late goals, the first coming 60 seconds after he had been subbed in in the 79th minute, against West Brom in October, to give 10-man City an early-season boost. An 88th-minute tally (Dzeko came on in the 73rd) followed a month later, and he again victimized West Brom with a textbook volley from just inside the box in May for a 1-0 win. Then, of course, there was his game-tying, injury-time header against QPR in the final game of the 2011-12 season, which gave City a lifeline before Aguero won them the title. Dzeko may not play the full 90 every game, but he certainly makes the most of his opportunities, and does so with a physical presence that is one of the most impressive in English soccer.
"It's not everyone that can be as strong as he can be and not everyone can be as fast as he can be," City back Gael Clichy said. At 6-foot-4, Dzeko often dwarfs those around him in the offensive third of the pitch, and is a towering presence in the box. Yet while most players his size are consigned to defense or, as in the cases of fellow Premier League giants Andy Carroll and Peter Crouch, ceremonial heads on sticks used to nod down incoming long balls to waiting teammates, Dzeko brings a full skill set, complete with ball skills and an uncanny nose for goal, to his play around the opposing net.
"[He] is difficult to mark, to be honest. I train with him, and it's difficult," said Toure, who also knows a thing or two about getting a good view in a crowd. "In this time of football, it's not easy to find one striker that can play with both legs and is clever. Dzeko is such a big guy but he knows how to manage his body and he's been working very well."
Given the soccer world's ongoing fascination with possession-based play and intricate passing combinations, having a big body up front who can also link up with a team's flitting midfielders, such as City's David Silva, is regarded as somewhat of a windfall. But in the rough and tumble Premier League, Dzeko still has to rely on his power as much as his talent, which allows him to be included in the squad against sides with varying tactics and personnel.
"When you play in England against teams like Stoke and West Ham he's good to have because he can hold the ball and make a difference," Clichy said. "Football is changing. Ten years ago we were focused more on physical players and power, now it's getting more into the Spanish type of game. But you always need to have a mixture of everything and we're glad we have him because he's a big asset."
In a sense, Dzeko's skill and penchant for scoring, combined with his mindset, make things comparatively easy for him. He will play when he plays, for whatever club he happens to be at, and he will find the back of the net. "Everyone wants to play, but even if you get 10, 15, 20 minutes you want to do your best and score goals, and that's my job," he said. Simple as that.
For now, though, his job at City done for the year after a final spate of goals in America, Dzeko only has one thing in mind, and it's not the club, or his future, or anything having to do with soccer.
"First holiday," he said. "And then everything else."