PLAYER ANALYSIS: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Selling at the Right Time

Out of the many players I’ve covered, not a single player has come from Serie A, and there is one simple reason why. The Italian top flight just isn’t as interesting as the other leagues. While it mostly has to do with Juventus winning the league in the worst fashion, it also has to do with the general style. The Premier League and Bundesliga have been so interesting to look at with innovative managers and young players shining in teams that are fun to watch. Italy just didn’t have that this season. While Napoli and Atalanta do break the mould, with the pair being entertaining to watch, you still see Juventus, Inter and AC Milan all being very dull. Maybe the departure of Allegri and arrival of Conte to Inter Milan might change that, but at the moment it is at the bottom in leagues to watch.

It is, however, the league that seems to contain the clubs who refuse to cash in on overperforming players. What I mean by this is every once in a while, a player will have a truly stand out season, and when the bigger clubs come knocking, they refuse to sell in the expectation that the player in question will improve and be seen as a more valuable prospect in the future. Andrea Belotti serves as the perfect example. After his exceptional 2016/17 season, which saw him score 26 goals, with only Dzeko and Mertens scoring more. Before they signed Romelu Lukaku, United were ready to offer over £80 million for the Italian. It was foolish for them to offer that much for a player who scored over 20 goals for the first time in his career, but it was even worse to see Torino reject it. They instantly came to regret it. Belotti suffered injuries last season and generally looked worse. While he did improve this season, he wasn’t nearly as good as he was in that breakout season. Valencia made the same mistake in not selling Rodrigo when Madrid were offering a crazy amount for the Spaniard, and Palace might make the same mistake regarding Zaha.

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The player we will be analysing today was also related to the ignorant stances clubs can take. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic had a fantastic 17/18 season, which saw him score 12 and assist 3. He was one of the highlights of a strong Lazio side, and it didn’t take long until Manchester United came knocking. They were offering nearly £80 million to sign the Serbian midfielder, and Lazio refused. It now seems that Milinkovic-Savic is on his way to Juventus, for £30 million less than United were offering. It’s another example of a club ignoring a better deal but does this drop in price show a player who has stagnated?

Milinkovic-Savic began his career in his homeland, playing for one of the biggest clubs in the country, Vojvodina. He shined in the youth team and ended up playing 13 games for the side, before moving on to Genk. In his only season for the Belgian club, he showed himself to be a midfielder with an eye for a goal, scoring 5 in 24 games. Lazio then decided to sign the Serbian, where he has remained and flourished. While he seemed to be a bit part player in his first campaign, he has shown himself to be an important player for the side, starting over 30 games for 3 straight seasons. He has the game time to back up the exciting numbers he has been putting up.

With Milinkovic-Savic starting as a central midfielder and slowly being pushed to a dominant attacking midfielder, his numbers have increased in some areas and dropped in others. His defensive numbers have slowly been declining since his arrival from Genk, going from 3.2 tackles and interceptions in the 2016/17 season to 2.1 last season. Inzaghi has used him in a more attacking role and has gotten the best out of the Serb. He is a physical presence in midfield and has the speed and energy to easily move up and down the pitch. Milinkovic-Savic specialises in making runs late into the box but is also comfortable in dropping deeper to receive the ball from his defenders. He has a good range of passing, which has allowed him to pick out the runs that their wing backs would usually make. While there is some flexibility in how Sergej can be deployed, the only area he truly stands out in is in the penalty area. While a return of 5 goals isn’t a fantastic one, he constantly makes late runs into the box. using his superior aerial presence to win the ball for his side. He wins 3.6 aerial duels per game, the most for his side. He gives Lazio another dimension in attack. While Alberto is a fantastic creator and Correa a good dribbler, Savic gives them another threat in attack. giving them a sense of unpredictability. His shot locations are okay. He is taking 1 shot per game, but most of his shots are coming from outside of the box. He is an average distance shooter, but he should stop shooting recklessly. He has a good range of passing that enables him to spread the ball across the pitch. While I did compliment Demirbay recently for his shots coming from outside of the box, that is because he is good at it. Milinkovic-Savic is also a very good dribbler. While his 1.1 successful dribbles per game could be higher, he does use his size to his advantage. It makes him difficult to dispossess.

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While Juventus remaining interested could be good for the player, I would recommend the Champions stay clear. The Old Lady are in dire need of an elite midfielder. With Khedira and Matuidi looking worse as the seasons pass by, they do need a player who is able to cover the same ground, while also being able to contribute on the attacking end. Juventus were outrun in midfield against Ajax in both legs, and couldn’t deal with the brilliance of Frenkie De Jong. While Milinkovic-Savic does offer a better option in that area, I do think they should look for someone else. Brozovic, Kovacic, Rabiot and Partey would make a lot more sense. Milinkovic-Savic excels in an area where Juventus do not need cover. They already have Ronaldo and Mandzukic as their aerial threats. The Serbian doesn’t stand out defensively and while his range of passing is impressive, they already have Pjanic as a player with excellent passing. Savic has been relied on heavily after the departure of Anderson and when Alberto has missed games. He doesn’t stand out in a way that would make big clubs take note. He isn’t what Juventus need at the moment.

I think there will still be suitors for the Serbian international. His goal drop might look like a problem, but xG shows he was lucky to even reach 12 goals in his breakout season. It looked more likely he would get around 6 goals instead.  There is a lot of Savic’s game that I like, but isn’t at the same level as someone like Paul Pogba or Bernardo Silva. In a couple of years, Lazio might regret not selling Milinkovic-Savic when they had the chance.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Ander Herrera and Improving PSG

With Paris crashing out of Europe in the round of 16 for a third time in a row, questions are going to be asked. What makes this different to the previous eliminations is who they lost to. While losing to Barcelona thanks to controversial refereeing decisions, followed by a defeat to the eventual champions Real Madrid the following year are all understandable, losing to a weakened Manchester United side has no excuse. While Tuchel was unable to choose Neymar, Cavani or Rabiot, his team was still strong enough to progress past a Manchester United side which were injury struck. Manchester United were the first team in the history of the Champions League to overcome a two goal defeat in the home leg to progress to the second round. It’s an embarrassing fact for PSG to face. I’ve already criticised the Ligue 1 champions plenty of times, and for good reason, but it seems this summer they are eager to fix these problems. While their full back areas are in desperate need of surgery, their midfield is in need of depth. With Manchester United failing to secure contracts with key players, it’s given Paris the chance to steal one of their key midfielders in Ander Herrera. Let’s look to see how he can improve PSG.

Herrera has had a very up and down time in Manchester. Primarily used as a squad player under Van Gaal, he did have a solid impact in his two years under the Dutchman. In his first season, he managed to contribute to 10 goals in 17 games, a solid output from a central midfielder. In a midfield consisting of an ageing Michael Carrick and an immobile Fellaini, he added energy and some needed bite to the midfield. While his game time didn’t improve in Van Gaal’s final season, it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho that truly brought the best out of the Spaniard. With Mourinho desperately searching for a player to partner Paul Pogba, Herrera was by far the best. His work rate and reading of the game was unrivalled in the squad, and gave the perfect balance to his french midfield partner. Their partnership brought the best out of each other, with Herrera’s huge 5.3 tackles and interceptions protecting a fragile defence. Herrera is one of the few players in the Premier League who understands how to take advantage of the rules of the game. It’s a common consensus that every Premier League fan hates Herrera, except United fans. He knows the dark arts of the game, like you see from the Catenaccio sides from the sixties. He will take a yellow card for the team, if it helps stop an opposition attack. He will always stay on the ground for longer than needed, and harass referees to help get the decision to go his way. While many authentic football fans do not like this side of the game, winning teams are built with players like Herrera. A combination of huge defensive work and adding that extra bite to midfield is perfect when you want to hold onto a lead near the end of the game, and to help disrupt more possession based sides. PSG’s midfield has missed that energy and aggression since the departure of Blaise Matuidi.

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So what are the issues with the Spaniard? He doesn’t offer enough in the attacking front. It’s strange to see a player who blossomed as an attacking midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa to have a lack of attacking output. Herrera’s drop off in the final third is massive from his final season for Bilbao. His key passes, shots per game and dribbles have all halved since then. While this could be down to a change in role, which is true. He isn’t relied on in an attacking sense anymore, thanks to the dominance of Paul Pogba, but the problem comes when he has to be relied. When Pogba suffered a short term injury during Mourinho’s second season, Herrera replaced him in a 4-2-3-1, playing alongside Matic. The Serbian couldn’t offer anything on the attacking front, and it was up Herrera to bring something to the midfield. United truly struggled during this period, with a stale draw at Anfield, a loss to Chelsea and an embarrassing lost to Huddersfield. Pogba was huge blow and Herrera just couldn’t add the same flair and arrogance as his teammate. It wasn’t a surprise as soon as Pogba came back, United beat a gritty Newcastle side 4-1.

So what would Herrera add to this side? As mentioned they are lacking in midfield depth. They have been forced to play Dani Alves and Marquinhos in that position because they are truly lacking options. Herrera would add a physical and defensive presence to a midfield that has looked shaky at times. It’s a team full of superstars, but having a player who isn’t afraid of doing the hard yards is always needed to succeed. As the famous Zidane quote goes when Makalele was sold to Chelsea. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”