What the case of Berahino can tell us about fluctuating form in players
Perhaps it seems a trick of the mind, now, that two years ago Saido Berahino was a third of the way through a season that would bring 20 goals for the West Brom forward -- 14 of them in the Premier League. Berahino, would wrap up his account for the season with a brace against champions Chelsea, the first whipped past Thibaut Courtois from 20 yards out and the second drilled low into the bottom left corner from the penalty spot.
Back then everything seemed to be coming so easily -- notwithstanding that Berahino had, in fact, endured an eight-game goal drought before putting Jose Mourinho's side to the sword. But form is temporary, as half of the old adage goes, after all -- and in fairness the then 21-year-old had spent much of the previous two months playing on his own up front after injuries to Brown Ideye and Victor Anichebe.
"He is one of the best finishers of a football I've seen," said his team-mate, Gareth McAuley, only this week. "His striking of a ball is so crisp. He doesn't need a backlift or anything." Class is permanent, according to the other half of that aforementioned saying. Yet 18 months ago few could have imagined the context in which McAuley was talking. Since that 2014-15 season, Berahino has played 40 times for his club and scored just seven goals, and has not played since Sept. 10; it is a startling drop-off but the striker himself shed a light on it when, on Sunday, he issued a statement explaining that he will continue to train alone at a conditioning camp in the south of France in a bid to regain match-readiness.
"The last year has been the most difficult of my career and it has left me short of the form and fitness required for the Premier League," part of it read -- with Berahino proceeding to explain that he has been suffering from a lack of belief and confidence, and that "Constant speculation in the media doesn't help".
It was a reminder of how delicate a line the idea of a footballer's "form" treads, particularly at a time when there is more noise around players' actions and perceived motivations than ever.
Berahino, of course, was the subject of four rejected bids from Tottenham in the summer following that double salvo against Chelsea and it was reported as recently as January that the move would finally go through in pre-season. Perhaps it would have, had Diafra Sakho been fit enough to arrive from West Ham as his replacement, but in any case, the player would have left under a cloud. He had tried to force the issue in August 2015 with a written transfer request, and tweeted that he would "never play [under club chairman] Jeremy Peace". Although he was later reintegrated into Tony Pulis's squad the feeling was, for the majority of the season, tense thereafter.
Wherever the fault ultimately lay, Berahino had evidently been put off his game. It speaks for his quality that teammates and manager alike are so keen to stick with him and facilitate a return to the form of two years ago. And perhaps, as he suggests, the media have a role to play too.
Berahino's admission that coverage of his situation had not helped his state of mind, and subsequently his form, was relatively unusual. Footballers generally go to great pains to stress their commitment to shutting-off from extraneous factors. Just this September, Everton striker Romelu Lukaku said speculation linking him with a return to Chelsea was "Not at all" a reason for his slow start to this season; that same month, American youngster Christian Pulisic said transfer talk was not at getting in the way of his progress at Borussia Dortmund.
Yet a constant drip-drip invariably becomes a flood when players have full use of social media and, while that alone means Berahino cannot be blameless given his public criticism of Peace, it highlights the inherently psychological roots to the notion of form. The composition of a side, and deployment of a player, on the pitch is one thing -- Eden Hazard's upturn at Chelsea, of which he told the Guardian last week that a feeling of "liberation" can occur "if a system brings the best out of you" providing a ready example -- but retaining the mental stability to be consistent is entirely another matter.
And sometimes it is a mixture of both: when Fernando Torres joined Chelsea from Liverpool in 2011, not only was his new club's style, far less based upon early breaks into space behind defences, far less suited to him but the pressure he was subjected to from the start -- it took 14 games, remember, for him to score his first goal -- boded ill. "£50m striker draws another blank for Blues," raged one headline after a goalless draw at Fulham; it was only his second game for the club.
Torres would later compare his situation at Chelsea to "swimming in wet clothes". Struggles of this kind are perhaps more understandable -- and common -- in strikers than in any other area of the pitch; the pressure for end product is greater, while a midfielder could in theory have a run of bad games and find it covered for either by surrounding teammates or in the form of goals.
So Berahino's toils, in a position that requires the mental clarity and boldness to create and produce, are far from unusual. Nor is the volume of scrutiny he has found himself under, which many would argue comes with the territory. Yet his conviction that media interference has hampered him is food for thought: exactly how important is a footballer's awareness of how they are perceived in giving them the confidence to perform -- and is it more difficult, in days of social media and rolling news, for them to retreat into a space where they can prepare their mind in the correct way? For Berahino, an inability to do that may have effectively cost him a year's worth of career development and may serve as a warning to other young players, for whom potential interferences are greater than ever.
The plus for him is that, unlike Torres, he is still just 23 years of age and a player with more extravagant gifts than the majority of his teammates -- one who Pulis said in January 2015 he would be willing to build a team around. The will within West Bromwich Albion to help Berahino rediscover his form has never waned; the question now is exactly what it will take to get it back.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.