From Champions League winners like Ivan Perišić to Ballon d’Or winners like Luka Modrić, Croatia is home to many of the world’s finest footballers. Indeed, the secret recipe to a winning team is to have a Croat in your team – think Mateo Kovačić for Chelsea, Luka Modrić for Real Madrid, even Dejan Lovren for Liverpool — and now Zenit.
Coincidentally, all three players applied their trade at the famed club of Dinamo Zagreb in the infancy of their careers before a big club took a gamble on them. The gamble paid off more often than not, leading to many clubs having keen eyes on the Croatian club for young talents. Such a gamble was made on a 22-year-old Marcelo Brozović back in 2015 by Serie A giants Inter Milan.
San Siro has the ability to engulf one with immense pressure, causing many to become overwhelmed as they step foot on the hallowed pitch. Many top players have succumbed to the pressure in prior seasons, and Brozović was no exception.
For his first three seasons with the Nerazzurri, Brozović was largely inconsistent on the pitch, struggling to make a definitive impact as the club’s attacking midfielder, and numerous reports of Brozović’s disciplinary issues and poor attitudes didn’t paint the Croat in the best of light either.
Unsurprisingly, he found himself on the transfer list and was only a flight away to Sevilla in 2018. Inter fans can have former manager and current Napoli technician Luciano Spalletti to thank for as he vetoed the move, no doubt seeing something in the attacking midfielder that nobody had. That something was his ability to play as the Regista in the team.
The turning point of his career occurred in a match against Napoli, then managed by Maurizio Sarri, on March 11, 2018. Brozović debuted his new role and completed his first full 90 minutes of the year. His passing range and tireless work off the ball in the new role had earned him a new lease of life at the San Siro.
This time, the opportunity to shine in the black and blue jersey has not gone to waste. Today, Brozović joins the ranks as Europe’s top defensive midfielders and has arguably been Inter’s most consistent performer for years now.
This analysis will cover the Croatian’s performances with Inter, who currently sit four points clear of Napoli at the top of the table whilst they are also two points clear of crosstown rivals Milan, despite having a game in hand on both teams. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to StatsBomb via FBref.
The Heart of Simone Inzaghi’s Midfield
Despite putting a stop to Juventus’s reign of dominance, Inter’s financial struggles meant an exodus was inevitable to keep the books balanced. The past summer saw the departure of Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku, whilst Christian Eriksen had his contract terminated due to unfortunate circumstances.
Antonio Conte too, had to bid farewell to the Nerazzurri due to his financial demands in the transfer market, with the Italian later accepting the job at Tottenham Hotspur. Thankfully, for Inter’s sake, that’s as many of the key men that left. They have largely kept the same eleven and more importantly, Marcelo Brozović at the heart of new manager Simone Inzaghi’s midfield.
Under Inzaghi, there was no deviation from Brozović’s role with seasons prior. The Croatian is an important piece to Inter, serving as the linkage between defence and attack.
More crucially, he plays a crucial role in the team’s build-up from deep. Brozović’s pass receptions heatmap signify the Croat’s tendencies to drop deep to receive the ball.
With the ball within Inter’s territory, the back three would take up wider positions, allowing Brozović to come deep and show for the ball through the centre to break the opponent’s first line of press.
Normally in this situation, one of Alessandro Bastoni or Milan Škriniar would take up advanced positions on the flanks, acting as a passing option or to make up numbers up the pitch.
With Brozović on the ball, he’d look to switch the ball long to the flanks or attempt to break the lines, often finding his midfield partners higher up the pitch.
Brozović drops into the centre of defence, forming a back three with Bastoni further up the pitch. The Croatian midfielder eventually makes the switch towards Bastoni.
Security in Progression
One of the criteria in becoming a top defensive midfielder is one’s tendencies to show for the ball and the subsequent action that follows.
In other words, in order for a team to excel at playing with possession, the deepest midfielders need to exhibit habits of showing for the ball, no matter the situation. Shying away from the ball would put teammates under pressure, which would lead to turnovers in possession.
Marcelo Brozović is essentially Inter’s go-to man in possession and is constantly seen running towards the ball, demanding it from his teammates at every opportunity.
There are times when he doesn’t get the ball that may lead to constant moans and complaints, but this is a sign of a top mentality that all midfielders should have. Even in the tightest of situations, Brozović still shows for the ball with the confidence and desire to progress the ball forward.
The confidence stems from his security in possession. Brozović is quality in manipulating the ball in tight spaces, doing everything to avoid a turnover in possession.
When compared against other central midfielders in the league, the Croat only loses the ball only 9.03 times per 100 touches; only Sassuolo’s Maxime Lopez loses possession at a lower rate compared to him. For a role that sees more of the possession than the others, Brozović’s ability to keep hold of the ball is crucial in Inter’s progression from deep.
Speaking of progression, Brozović also ranks highly in the number of Progressive Passes he makes in a game. He makes 5.23 Progressive Passes, which supports his tendencies to move the ball forward at every opportunity.
When it comes to progression, Brozović doesn’t give away the ball, yet has a keen eye for a pass to his teammates in advanced areas. In the aforementioned game against Napoli, Brozović exhibited his tendencies to show for the ball as well as the skill to make something out of absolutely nothing.
In the below example, as the ball is funnelled to the right, Lazio’s pressing system limits Matteo Darmian’s passing option significantly. The pass down the channel is closed down and Brozović (despite actively showing for the ball) is being marked closely.
Still, Brozović persists and demands the ball. He takes it in his stride and moves the ball out of danger, carrying it past multiple men with limited space.
He plays a one-two with his teammates to free himself momentarily, before playing a through ball to his forwards. This sequence sums up the Croat’s ability in possession, calm and collected whilst having a keen desire to progress it forward.
Metronome in Possession
As we dig deeper into Brozović’s passing, the Croatian international boast 59.73 Completed Passes when normalized to the league’s average. This makes him only second in the metric, yet again to Sassuolo’s Maxime Lopez.
Accomplishing 6.52 Passes into Final Third & Penalty Area also shows a progressive intent in the Croatian, despite having a majority share of the ball. Only 8 other central midfielders accumulated more.
Nonetheless, he is constantly looking for the killer pass and completes deep progressions regularly for the Nerazzurri. Most of his deep progressions occur from deep, further signifying his ability to thread the needle with his passes.
Essentially, Brozović acts as Inter’s primary distributor in possession. In fact, the Croat (77) features in 7 of the Inter’s top 10 passing combinations, thus far this season. His common receptors are from the defenders, which signifies his importance when building play from deep.
It also seems like his favourite partner on the pitch seems to be Škriniar (37) – The pair’s combination tops the charts in the club with Brozović receiving the ball 217 times from Škriniar and 187 times, vice versa.
Brozović’s combination with his regular midfield partners in Nicolò Barella (23) and Hakan Çalhanoğlu (20) also catches the eye, signifying his tendencies to break the lines or progress the ball forward to his more advanced midfield partners.
As shown in the Progressive Pass Heatmaps above, Brozović receives the ball from deep and looks to pass it forward to his teammates around zone 14. A huge contrast from his role in the past, where he was tasked to create game-changing moments of brilliance on the regular, Brozović now sits back and allows the attacking unit of the squad to win the game.
Another habit he picks up is his tendency to scan before receiving the ball. When observing the player, you’d often see him turning his head around in a 180-degree motion to get a picture of his teammates multiple times before receiving the ball.
This saves him the time to think of a pass and executes it immediately upon receiving the ball. Elite midfielders do this on a regular and Brozović has displayed it throughout his time at the San Siro.
Examples of Brozović’s passing range and line-breaking tendencies
Shield in Transition
Out of possession, Brozović remains an important figure in his defensive duties for Inter. With the attacking unit of the squad further up the pitch, Brozović is usually the first one dealing with the threat on the transition.
As such, he has a crucial role in ensuring he reads the game well to intercept play, whilst having the bite to put in a tackle to stop play from progressing.
This is reflected in his defensive stats. Amongst central midfielders in the league, Brozović accumulated 1.65 Aggressive Defensive Actions (Tackles, Interceptions and Successful Pressures) per 100 Opposition Touches, and 2.8 Passive Defensive Actions (Blocks, Clearances and Recoveries) per 100 Opposition Touches.
In other words, the Croat is just as busy off-the-ball as he is on the ball. He is constable shuffling across to make defensive actions to cover for his teammates, as they regroup.
Brozović constantly positions himself astutely to win second balls or recover loose passes. According to his True Interceptions Map above, the Croat makes a lot of recoveries in his defensive half, likely picking up loose balls from the opposition.
He also isn’t shy to come in the way of a shot, with multiple shots blocked outside the box and even a goal-saving one according to the map. His reading of the game allows him to anticipate danger well, intercepting balls and breaking up play.
In fact, he ranks 4th in Possession Adjusted Interceptions when compared to other midfielders, recovering the ball 7.29 times per 90. Much of that is a credit to his ability to scan play and his first-rate positional awareness.
Brozović stays back and anticipates loose balls, progresses the play forward to keep the pressure on.
The bomb tattoo on his neck reflects his explosive nature. The immaturity in his behaviour may have subsided at the age of 29, as he makes more calm decisions on and off the pitch. Nevertheless, the fiery nature of the Croatian International is evident in the tackles he puts in.
This is complemented with his long limbs, often stretching to nick the ball out of opponents in crucial moments. His aggression is well utilized under Inzaghi in making necessary fouls up the pitch to stop play. Fouling, in that sense, is a necessary evil.
This season, Brozović has committed 10.47 True Tackles per 100 Opposition Touch (True Tackles is a metric that considers the lost challenges and fouls when making a tackle).
His 4.27 Tackles per 100 Opposition Touches tells us that he is rather rash in his tackles, losing challenges and giving fouls away more when engaging in a duel. Despite being one of the better ball winners amongst central midfielders, the number of failed challenges and fouls given away remains a concern.
In fact, Brozović commits the most fouls in the Inter squad. That said, most of the tackles situate in the opponent’s half, suggesting he is actively stopping opponents from transitioning quickly and giving time for his team to regroup.
Nonetheless, the high number of failed challenges in his own half remains a concern as opponents can get past him easily and win fouls in a dangerous area.
Examples of Brozović making use of his long limbs to put in a tackle and stopping transitions.
Today, the ball is in the Croat’s corner. With his contract set to expire this coming summer, Brozović is due a decision that could see him spend the peak of his career in San Siro, or grant him the opportunity to explore different leagues around the world such as the Premier League or La Liga.
Despite turning 29 in November, there will be no shortage of offers for the Croatian International on account of the rare quality he possesses. After losing Antonio Conte, Christian Eriksen, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi in the same summer, losing their Croatian controller in midfield would prove a deadly blow for Inter.
From a struggling attacking midfielder to an elite-level defensive midfielder for a Scudetto champion, Marcelo Brozović has proven that players cannot always be pigeonholed in the same position — a tweak in the role where the strengths are optimized has seen him flourish into one of Europe’s best.
Had Luciano Spalletti not mustered the epiphany in changing Brozović’s role into a regista back in 2018, he’d never be talked in the same breath as one of Europe’s best defensive midfielders, such as Casemiro, Rodri, and Jorginho.
As he weighs his decision between staying at Inter or leaving for free in six months, Brozović will be looking to become the next Croatian to lift the Champions League after Kovačič (2021), Perišić (2020), Lovren (2019), Modrić and Kovačić (2016, 2017 and 2018), Ivan Rakitić (2015), Modrić (2014) and Mario Mandžukić (2013). Not bad for a nation of 4 million people.
By: Lee Chun Hang / @chunhang7 — All visualizations completed by author.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto