For outsiders to the Bundesliga and Werder Bremen there are two immediately striking features about goals for the home side at Weserstadion. The first is the sound of The Proclaimers’ ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ which greets Werder’s goals. The second is something that is becoming increasingly common, the sight of Franco Di Santo wheeling away in celebration. That is not though to mock the Argentine or his capabilities. Rather, to fans of the English game, individual success for the 6’4″Di Santo is not something they became accustomed to during his time in the Premier League.
Times change though, and age and a growing maturity have certainly brought the best out of Franco Di Santo, who is enjoying his football more than ever before. The former Chelsea, Blackburn and Wigan player is currently in the best form of his career and in doing so has become a real fans’ favourite at Werder Bremen. The Argentine’s wonder strike away at Freiburg on Saturday took his tally for the season to 12 Bundesliga strikes. Only three players can boast a better return in front of goal in the current campaign, while Di Santo also currently sits ahead of the likes of Bayern Munich duo Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller in the goal scoring charts.
Few would begrudge Di Santo the success he is currently experiencing. The 25-year-old has always come across as a very hard worker on the pitch, and an extremely affable and likable figure off it. That said, it seemed for a long time that Mendoza, Argentina native would be the latest in a long line of Argentine strikers to buckle under the weight of expectation. Football has not always been such a happy career for Di Santo.
The centre forward’s prolific nature in Chile at Audax Italiano had encouraged Chelsea to part with £3.4 million for his signature, as a teenaged Di Santo experienced both Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana competition with the Chilean Primera division club from La Florida. With Frank Arnesen running the rule over Chelsea’s signing of young talent, the policy in place at the club largely saw Chelsea seeking the services of young players, not just with an abundance of talent, but also some level of experience too. Di Santo’s spell in Chile meant that he fit the bill very well. To the majority of Chelsea fans who had not seen or heard of Di Santo before, they were very quickly aware of what he could produce once he touched down in England.
Settling into the reserves immediately, the Argentine netted goal after goal, finishing the 2007-2008 reserve campaign with 12 strikes in eight games. @chelseayouth, a Twitter account profiling Chelsea’s youth and reserve setups remembers the forward’s formative years at the club. “He was far too good for that standard. If he had signed for Chelsea now he’d almost certainly have gone straight out on loan rather than join the reserve ranks.” As would be expected given his immediate form, expectations began to rise. Di Santo started training more with the first team and even began to get a sniff of the action with a couple of substitute appearances here and there.
But it was also around this time where Di Santo’s chances of a future at Stamford Bridge began to look less likely. While he did get chances, they were very sparse in number and slow in coming. When he was offered opportunities they were often the final minutes of games in which the result had already been decided. @chelseayouth suggests that while Di Santo had some obvious talent, he was always destined to struggle because of the club’s resources. “2008-10 at Chelsea meant being better than Drogba, Anelka, Kalou and Sturridge, which was a tough ask. You might say he deserved a few more looks than he got, but considering 2009-10 was a record-breaking, title-winning season for Chelsea, it’s hard to argue against the path they took.”
With chances at a minimum, the club and Di Santo took the option of a loan spell, with the forward joining Blackburn Rovers. While the work rate and efforts of the Argentine impressed, he failed to reproduce the level of goals he had found so easy to come by in Chelsea’s reserve setup, finding the net just once in 22 games. Struggling to show those at Chelsea what he could do, Di Santo’s time at Stamford Bridge was up.
If his time at Chelsea was a learning curve, then the three season spell at Wigan was at least a small step in the right direction. Signing for the club in 2010 for £2 million, Di Santo was joining a side where the pressure was considerably less than had been the case at Chelsea. He also started to benefit from Wigan’s slightly more expansive approach, an attractive style it would be fair to say he did not experience at Blackburn. If his goals to games ratio of 13 strikes in 92 games seems a little underwhelming, it is important to note that Di Santo was playing for a side who between the years of 2010 and 2013 finished 16th, 15th and 18th, with the final position seeing them relegated from the Premier League. But with Wigan relegated they decided to cut their losses on Di Santo, who was released.
Their loss was Werder Bremen’s gain, even if it was not immediately apparent. As has been the case with every one of Di Santo’s moves (Chelsea reserves aside), the forward took time to settle in, with his first campaign in the Bundesliga ending with four goals in 23 games.
This season however he has exploded into life, finding the net with much more ease. There have been 12 league strikes (13 across all competitions) in 17 games, with Di Santo’s goals playing an important role in Werder’s charge up the Bundesliga table. Indeed, just as Werder have experienced as a team, Di Santo’s form has been particularly impressive since the Winter Break, with six goals in his last seven games. At 25 there are real signs that Di Santo is beginning to mature and improve with age. An unfashionable centre forward in the style of Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Wolfsburg’s Bas Dost, there are perhaps more reasons why Di Santo shouldn’t succeed than why he should. But despite his awkward style and stance there is no doubting that he has improved massively as a player during his time in Germany.
Werder supporter @SvwOMYTfc is one of those to notice the development of Di Santo, who despite what has seemed like an eternity of travails, remains a relatively young player at just 25. He speaks of the forward’s “combination of physical and technical talent”, an assessment agreed with by The Fanatic’s very own @normusings who is quick to point out Di Santo’s other abilities. “He is a decent finisher, very agile and always fully committed”. The forward’s talents have not gone unnoticed by @RFWPod presenter Bjorn either. “He’s tall, has decent speed and instincts, technically sound, and can score with his head or either foot, from inside or outside the box. He’s also showing great versatility: playing in the box, with his back to the goal as a facilitator, or moving out onto the wings.”
One of the factors behind the improvement has been better man management, with much more faith shown in the 25-year-old. @normusings suggests that this more prolific version of Di Santo can be attributed to a change in formation, something that has enabled Di Santo to play a more natural game. “Werder’s return to the 4-4-2 diamond and his partnership with Selke are the main differences from last season. The two strikers upfront have formed a marvellous partnership so far, and their understanding of how each other is moving is simply sublime. Furthermore, having a player like Junuzovic providing them with service from the left wing has helped them an awful lot as well.” This has particularly been the case since Viktor Skripnik took over from Robin Dutt as Werder Bremen’s manager according to @RFWPod. “Werder are playing a more striker friendly system under Skripnik and Di Santo has found a decent running mate in Davie Selke”. The stats certainly suggest as much with Di Santo finding the net nine times in the 10 games since Skripnik took the reigns in Bremen.
Whatever has caused the change in fortunes for Franco Di Santo, it is clear that most are surprised by just how dramatic the change has been. Perhaps the biggest surprise, as has already been alluded to, will come in England. “I’m surprised to a degree because he lacked the physical intensity I thought he required to succeed for such a long time that it might not be in his nature but, credit where it’s due, he’s been a slow burner and has figured out how to succeed.” @chelseayouth’s sentiments are agreed with even by those who have seen the better side of Di Santo, with @normusings suggesting that he “wouldn’t have imagined that Di Santo would score more than 10 goals this season. Right now he could even manage to get up to 20 goals if he manages to sustain his form.” @RFWPod are slightly less surprised pointing towards the back end of last season when Di Santo “showed a little of what he could do”, while also pointing out that “strikers notoriously need a little longer to come into their own”.
With the 20 goal mark now an obvious target for Di Santo, where do those that have seen him develop envisage his future to be? @SvwOMYTfc believes that for the time being he is best staying put at Weserstadion. “I think provided he keeps a good head on his shoulders he could have a career similar to Claudio Pizarro. He would benefit (as would Werder) from sticking around for another couple of seasons, working on his technique and scoring and bringing his stock up.” But surely if the goals keep on coming and Di Santo continues to impress there will be no shortage of options for the forward, and @normusings believes Werder could have a “tough decision this summer”. “Either they’ll have to sell him or his contract runs out at the end of next season. Given his form right now it doesn’t come as a surprise that many teams in the Bundesliga are keen on signing him, and right now Werder can’t compete with many of those teams in terms of money.”
@RFWPod are slightly more optimistic about Werder’s chances of retaining the striker’s services, even if it is just for a year longer. “I think Werder will negotiate an early extension and get to enjoy his talents for at least another season. Di Santo is certainly happy in Bremen, he said so repeatedly and seems genuine about it.” However they are equally aware of the danger of Di Santo “outgrowing” the success of the club. “He has the talent to make a splash at a larger club and play in Europe.”
Saturday’s victory leaves Werder Bremen five points off a European place, an astonishing feat given that just a couple of months ago they seemed resigned to a relegation battle. Should the club secure a European spot, Di Santo may be more inclined to stay. For the time being though, he will look to ensure that he isn’t just a flash in the pan.
From likable hard worker, to a goal scoring machine, Franco Di Santo’s change in fortunes has been an enjoyable transformation to watch. For Werder fans, they will be hoping to see him wheeling away in celebration, with the tones of The Proclaimers ringing in their ears for a long time to come.
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