The Balkans are known to have some of the best hidden gems in the footballing world. The Croatias, The Serbias of our world have given us many footballing prodigies in the last 2 decades. One such prodigy found his way to Italy at a very young age, right under the noses of European Giants. Now, mature enough to make a big switch- we will take a look at La Viola’s Serbian Centre Back- Nikola Milenkovic and how he can be a good partner to Harry Maguire in the long run and provide healthy competition to current centre back pairing at the English club.
Nikola Milenkovic was born in Belgrade in October 1997 and spent his entire youth career at Partizan Belgrade who are known to unearth many talented youngsters in the Balkans (one such player which Manchester United were seriously interested in was Filip Stevanovic, who eventually chose Manchester City). After spending some time on loan at Teleoptik, Milenkovic made his debut for Partizan in the Serbian SuperLeague in the 2015/16 season. He appeared four times, largely because of a four-game suspension following a red card. He still managed to score his first goal for the club that year.
The following season, 2016/17, saw Milenkovic establish himself as first choice option at centre back as he made 32 appearances in the league, scoring twice, as Partizan completed a domestic double. At the end of the season, Fiorentina’s sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, famous for snapping up budding players in the Balkans, brought the defender to Firenze. Milenkovic had a good debut season in Italy with 16 appearances in Serie A. His performances also earned him a spot in Serbia’s World Cup squad where he played all of their three games at the heart of defence.
Nikola Milenkovic has been one of only a few standout performers for Fiorentina this season. The Serbian is a right-footed defender, who stands at 6 ft 5 and was initially signed from Partizan Belgrade for £4.5m in 2017/18. The Serbian has played in over 3,000 minutes in each of his last two Serie A campaigns, highlighting his importance to the team. Fiorentina often rely on Nikola’s defensive ability. Milenkovic often lines up as the right centre-back and has also played as a right back in the past for La Viola and Partizan. The Serbian ventures very less towards the left-hand side of the 18-yard box, fixed to the central area and the right-hand side wide space.
The heat map also implies that Milenkovic is comfortable advancing with the ball when Fiorentina are in possession, a confident user of the ball who can often be found looking for a progressive pass to break the lines of the opposition’s defensive structure.
Milenkovic is kind of an old school, no-nonsense defender, combining the old school centre back principles with modern day approach; amalgam of the intelligent reading of the game and positioning with strength and superb aerial ability. His height and physical built helps him to dominate in the air, last season the Serbian won 77% of all aerial battles, a figure which positioned him in the 95th percentile of centre-backs in Serie A.
This season also, he is averaging upwards of 80% in successful aerial duels, putting him in topmost percentile in this metric, not only in Serie A but in top 5 leagues of Europe. One aspect of Milenkovic’s impressive defensive game is his individual defending. He’s got a very good technique when defending on his own and for his age shows a great wealth of experience in terms of his decision making. Milenkovic possesses an innate sense of positioning with the ability to angle his body perfectly to cover passing options while also maintaining the balance needed to defend against the opposition attacking players.
Ball Playing Ability
In modern day football, the ball playing and ball progression ability of centre backs is becoming a necessary trait in order to thrive at elite level since teams, rather than sitting deep and counter-attacking from flanks, now try to press/counter-press higher up the pitch and try to dominate the possession in half wing spaces. There has been a myth in the scouting circuit that Nikola isn’t very comfortable with ball playing and ball progression due to his “athletic built” (just like Harry Maguire).
Here, we see an example of how Nikola Milenkovic is with the ball at his feet in the image taken from the game against Udinese below.
The opposition are well organised and their press has closed all forward passing lanes, leading to Fiorentina playing the ball back towards their own goal. As soon as Milenkovic receives the ball in this position his first thought is to drive forward at the opposition.
This movement of the central defender towards the opposition forces the opposition to move out of their positional slots to close Milenkovic down. This movement towards the ball opens a forward passing lane, allowing Nikola to progress the ball into the opposition’s half to the feet of Patrick Cutrone.
Another example of the Serbian’s confidence on the ball and vision to breaking opposition’s lines with his passes with the ball can be found against Sampdoria. I Bluerchiati, led by Mister Claudio “Dily Ding, Dily Dong” Ranieri, are known to deploy a low block with two banks of four spanning the width of the penalty area, and pressing the opposition’s centre backs through their strikers.
This movement creates an opportunity for Milenkovic to get a shot/pass off on goal, in this circumstance Patrick Cutrone reads the play like any good forward and is able to get on the end of the ball from Nikola.
In the above data driven and eye testing tactical analysis, we have seen that Nikola Milenkovic has all the traits to thrive at an elite level in modern day game, he has the physical build, the aggression of an ‘old school’ Centre Back, intelligence of a ‘modern day’ centre back and ability to play lots of games into the season (the Serbian has missed less than 10 matches in his entire career due to injury concerns till now). Given Manchester United’s defensive woes are more due to underlying structural issues which leave their centre backs without any good cover during transitions and the initial pairing of Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof is also suspect at times: the Swede’s inability to impose himself on opposition’s attacking players sometimes add extra load on his English partner to do extra dirty work. A fast paced and aggressive centre back who can easily do the dirty work on and off the ball during transitions and also has the aggression and physical build to impose himself on the opposition is required to partner Harry Maguire in the long run. Nikola has all those traits and all the eye test and data analysis point out that he can be a good option to buy because of following factors:
- The Serbian’s contract with Fiorentina ends in 2022, with him being at a stage in his career where he wants to progress as a footballer at a bigger stage and contest for trophies- this may force Fiorentina to cash in on him during the summer window of 2021. A price between 20-40 million pounds will easily force Fiorentina to cash in on him.
- Manchester United do require a centre back but even before buying a Centre Back, they need to sort out the future of their back up Centre Backs first: Eric Bailly’s contract is ending in 2022 and Axel Tuanzebe needs regular playing time at his age too.
- Moreover, Manchester United need to buy a defensive minded versatile midfielder first who can play in multiple formations, complement the current midfield roster, try to take the load of creation from Bruno Fernandes and most important thing, don’t leave the centre backs exposed during transitions. With multiple loopholes in the squad and Manchester United’s inability to do the transfer business efficiently in comparison to their arch rivals (Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC), a cheaper alternative like Milenkovic may prove to be a bargain buy in longer run and also leave funds to strengthen the positions which require immediate and instant fix.