Groningen players completely lost their heads when facing Albert Rusnak in September in a local Northern derby against Cambuur Leeuwarden. After the Slovakian midfielder opened the scoring with a sublime finish at the start of the second half, they understood stopping him would be nearly impossible and started hunting the youngster all over the pitch. Four Groningen players good booked in just two minutes after two nasty tackles on Rusnak, and coach Henk de Jong decided to substitute the star in order to protect him, before Cambuur ran out worthy 3-0 winners.
John Guidetti is the best Manchester City loanee this season and has impressed mightily at Celtic, but Rusnak is not far behind. Cambuur, promoted to Eredivisie in the summer of 2013, are a small club on a tiny budget and constantly searching for affordable young players who will help them survive. The past season, their play was built around Austrian prodigy Marcel Ritzmaier, who joined on loan from PSV Eindhoven and became a local hero. He went back to his club, and Cambuur needed someone to fill the void. Rusnak was chosen, and just a couple weeks into the new season, nobody misses Ritzmaier anymore.
The Slovakian has not only scored three goals and provided two assists in 11 games but also became the lynchpin in midfield, the man who dictates the tempo and runs the show. Cambuur play very attractive football, based on possession and short passing -- one might call them the tiki-taka team of Holland. That style was introduced last season by Canadian-born coach Dwight Lodeweges, who left for local rival Heerenveen in the summer, and his work has been continued and evolved by former assistant de Jong. For Rusnak, who knew next to nothing about the club before signing for them, it is a dream come true.
The youngster joined Manchester City in 2010 as a 16-year-old, when his father, Albert Rusnak Sr., got a scouting job for the club. Two-footed, imaginative, quick-thinking and technically sound, he was soon regarded as one of the brightest prospects in the academy, but his chances of playing for the first team were, naturally, close to zero.
The past season, Rusnak was loaned out, first to Oldham and then to Birmingham City, but the slightly built wizard could hardly fit into such physically demanding surroundings. He played very rarely, and when on the pitch, he usually just watched high balls fly back and forth over his head. Now, at long last, he is with a team that wants the ball at his feet most of the time.
Marcel Keizer, nephew of Ajax great Piet Keizer, who became the technical director at Cambuur in the summer, is the man responsible for the purchase.
"Rusnak was mostly used as a right winger in England, but we saw that he likes to drift to the middle, has technical skills and good vision," Keizer told Voetbal International about the decision to bring in the Slovakian and turn him into a playmaker.
Rusnak was so willing to get some playing time that he agreed to come for trial before signing for Cambuur. He initially started following the Eredivisie when fellow Slovakian Miroslav Stoch starred for Twente on loan from Chelsea and won the title in 2010. Ever since, the Dutch league was appealing to him, and the decision was easy to make when Cambuur came calling. The loan deal was initially signed until January but is now extended until the end of the season, as all parties are more than happy with his development.
The 20-year-old is firmly the crowd favourite in Leeuwarden. Local press describe him a humble person, even though he drives a sporty Mercedes.
"He is a gift from football heaven," Cambuur general manager Gerald van den Belt said.
"Albert's contribution is crucial. He is the most pleasant surprise, playing even better than Ritzmaier," local journalist Martijn Mooiweer said.
"He is comfortable on the ball, takes quality free kicks, possesses a good shot and adds a lot of flair," said Henk Albers, the NDC Media reporter who follows Cambuur closely.
The team is exceeding all expectations at the start of the season. After finishing 12th the past term, they were unbeaten in their first five games and climbed to third in late October. This past Sunday, another great goal by Rusnak almost gave them three points at Willem II, but they conceded an injury time equaliser and dropped to fifth -- still an extraordinary place for a club whose basic target is to avoid relegation.
Naturally, Rusnak is still relatively inexperienced and prone to lapses of concentration. In the fierce derby at Heerenveen, he lost the ball immediately after kickoff, and the mistake led to the quickest penalty in Dutch history -- after just nine seconds. De Jong was very angry, but Cambuur came back to salvage a 2-2 draw, and the coach eventually praised his protege.
"Albert is a special guy with great qualities," he said. "He finds space between the lines and is good with both feet."
As Rusnak's contract at City ends in the summer of 2015, an important decision will have to be made pretty soon. The midfielder believes the style of Manuel Pellegrini suits him but is aware breaking into the team will be extremely hard.
"There are no players aged 20 who play for City right now," he told De Telegraaf in late October. "They have Samir Nasri and David Silva in my position. Maybe I will have to stay in Holland for three more years."
Will the Sky Blues gamble on Rusnak next season, or will he join the long list of academy players who couldn't find their way through and were forced to leave? We might have to wait a few months to know the answer, but in the meantime, City fans should certainly follow Cambuur very closely. They won't be disappointed.