After failing to make his mark at Fiorentina, Toni Fruk is tearing up Croatian football as Rijeka look to capture the Croatian First League title for just the second time in their history. In July 2023, NK Rijeka announced the signing of former Fiorentina youngster Toni Fruk on a free transfer following an underwhelming four-year stint in Italy.
The former Hypo Limac prospect signed for Fiorentina back in 2019 for an estimated 1,500,000 from Belgian club Royal Excel Mouscron. Fruk would spend four years with the Florence club failing to break to make a single competitive appearance for the senior club and spending the last two years of his contract out on loan at Croatian First Division outlet HNK Gorica.
During his time in Velika Gorica, Fruk would produce 14 goal contributions in 53 league appearances whilst operating primarily as a left winger for the club. Fast forward six months and he has produced 12 goal contributions in just 19 league games as Riječki bijeli find themselves sitting second in the league, four points above Dinamo Zagreb, who have a game in hand, and just three points behind league leaders Hajduk Split.
Dinamo Zagreb have won every single league title in Croatia since the start of the 2005/06 season with the sole exception of 2016/17, when Rijeka claimed their first-ever championship after edging Dinamo to the title by two points. Whilst the defending champions kicked off 2024 with a 3-0 loss to NK Lokomotiva on Tuesday, Rijeka found themselves trailing by two goals within 25 minutes, but they nevertheless prevailed with a 3-2 win at HNK Gorica with Marko Pjaca registering a brace and Niko Galešić scoring in the 89th minute to secure the victory.
Fruk returned to his former stomping grounds and made himself a constant threat, winning two fouls, creating three key passes, putting up three shots and coming out on top in three out of five ground duels, before being subbed off in the 77th minute. At 22, he looks set to play a pivotal role for a Rijeka side that are daring to dream at the Stadion Rujevica. But what makes Toni Fruk such an exciting young prospect? Well, let’s take a look at his underlying numbers and find out:
Player Profile – Toni Fruk
Date of birth: 09/03/2001
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Preferred foot: Left
Contract Expires: 15/07/2027
Current Value: €3.50m
Under current coach Željko Sopić, Rijeka have lined up primarily in a 4-2-3-1 formation but have frequently switched to a more attacking system in a 4-1-4-1. Sopić has made the tactical decision to move Fruk from his more familiar position as a left-sided winger into an attacking midfielder typically sitting either on the right-hand side of the ten space behind Marco Pašalić out on the right wing or as the sole attacking midfielder with Pašalić & Niko Jankovic out on either wing.
Under the management of then Gorica boss Igor Angelovski, Fruk was utilised primarily as the left-sided winger in a 4-3-3 set up a position that failed to utilise Fruk’s best attributes and led to poor creative numbers for the Croatian. It was when current Rijeka boss Željko Sopić took over as Gorica manager in November 2022 that things would begin to change for Fruk.
Following a short spell out of the team, Sopić would bring Fruk back into the starting 11 but now as the sole attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. During this nine-game run at the end of the season, Fruk would produce 5 goal contributions in just 538 minutes of football and helping Gorica ensure survival in the league.
During the 2023/2024 season thus far Fruk has produced 7 goal contributions whilst playing as part of Rijeka’s 4-2-3-1 set-up, 3 goal contributions in the 4-1-4-1 set up and even 3 goal contributions during the rare occasions Rijeka have switched to a 4-3-2 with Fruk playing in the flat midfield three.
The 4-2-3-1 utilised by Rijeka frequently during the 2023/2024 HNL season.
We have taken a look at how Fruk is being utilised at Rijeka, but how is he performing? Let’s take a look at the numbers;
Fruk currently leads the HNL for assists with 10 with Dinamo’s Takuro Kaneko sitting second with just 6. Fruk is producing an impressive 0.59 assists/90 with a mammoth 6.08 overperformance versus his xA for this season. Breaking down this overperformance is crucial as it is within the realms of possibility that Fruk is simply benefiting from some monster finishing in front of him, however, upon closer inspection there are a few factors that account for the overperformance.
Firstly, Fruk has a fantastic ability to create from deep, one of the Croatian’s main qualities is his phenomenal passing range (more on this later) however this leads to Fruk creating chances that the xA model deems to be lower. Both the distance of pass and area of the pass are key factors in the calculations for xA therefore Fruk’s incredible assists against Rudeš and Varaždin will be quantified as low xA-level chances.
Secondly, Fruk is a frequent crosser, averaging 1.48 crosses per 90 (ranked 15th in the league) and 0.59 deep completed crosses per 90 (10th in the league) alongside this Fruk often takes set pieces for Rijeka both of which are quantified as low xA chances. Finally, Fruk has benefited on a few occasions from ridiculous finishing particularly during Rijeka’s 6-0 win over Istra 1961.
A ranged effort from Marco Pašalić and a low and slow effort from Lindon Selahi have padded Fruk’s record slightly and contributed to this large xA variance but not to the extent that it discredits or particularly caveats the sensational season he is having creatively.
The Croatian U21 international is currently the league leader for shot assists with 1.89 per 90 sitting just above teammate Marko Pjaca with 1.80. These numbers are slightly less surprising when it is revealed that Rijeka forwards Niko Janković and Marco Pašalić are the league leaders for total shots sitting at an average of 2.74 and 3.42 shots per 90 respectively.
Creatively, Fruk sits as a top percentile player in the HNL ranking in the upper percentiles for xA/90, Shot Assists/90 and Through Passes/90 (1.29/90). Fruk is at his most accurate when delivering penalty area passes from a central location, of his 40 deliveries into the penalty area (in the past calendar year) 19 of these have from a central location with a 73.7% accuracy whilst passes from outwide sit with an accuracy of just below 50% (from 21 attempts.)
From a goal-scoring perspective, Fruk is underperforming, he sits currently with two league goals from an xG of 3.89. He is not scared to take a shot on goal, currently sitting 3rd in the league for total shots with 41, an average of 2.42 per 90, but a low xG per shot of 0.10 tells us that Fruk enjoys a shot from range.
Looking at Fruk’s xG bucket distribution, a visual way of illustrating the average shot quality of a player, we can see that the majority of Fruk’s shots sit in the 0-0.2xG area.
Toni Fruk’s xG Bucked Distribution for the past calendar year.
This can be seen further by taking a look at his shot map for the last calendar year, of Fruk’s 78 shots just 25 found the target (32.1%) generating an xG of just 7.20 and a goal conversion rate of 7.7%.
Toni Fruk’s Shot Map for the last calendar year
The majority of Fruk’s shots came from outside the penalty area with only 24.5% of these shots then finding the target and just one finding the net representing a 2% conversion rate. Just four of Fruk’s 78 shots had an xG value of over 0.4, showing that there is work to do in the decision-making department for the Rijeka star.
Despite possessing an incredible on-the-ball ability in tight spaces, Fruk is not much of a distance dribbler as illustrated by his below-average 3.07 dribbles per 90 (21st in the league) and his 0.89 progressive runs per 90 (42nd in the league).
Breaking down his dribbles further, we can see that from Fruk’s 76 attempted dribbles in the past calendar year he kept possession 75% of the time (57/76) and generated 1.52xG from shots following a successful dribble (22 shots, 8 on target, 2 goals).
Fruk is also not much of a contributor from a defensive POV sitting with just 5.56 defensive duels per 90 (42nd in the league) and just 5.09 recoveries per 90 (45th in the league).
Toni Fruk – Final Assessment
- Passing Range – The standout quality for Fruk is his confidence, composure and ability to play a variety of passes in order to create space or goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates. Stylistically Fruk presents very similar to former Rennes and Dinamo midfielder Lovro Majer with an incredible ability to play the ball between defenders from a range of distances and from central and wide areas.
- Crossing Ability – There is a reason Fruk takes set pieces for Rijeka and it’s not for a lack of competition. The Croatian’s delivery from crosses is beautiful to watch, his ability to pick out his teammates from deep or simply to play the ball perfectly into crowded dangerous areas against deep blocks is a delight to see. Fruk is putting up 1.48 crosses per 90 this season and is maintaining a 40% success rate, only Antonio Marin (66.67%) possesses a better accuracy for players within this range.
- Dribbling In Tight Areas – Although, as broken down earlier, Fruk is not a frequent distance dribbler, he does possess a sensational ability to maintain the ball in tight areas, particularly in central areas of the park. When crowded outside the box Fruk is capable and confident at moving the ball through the space left by multiple defenders before playing a final pass or getting off an attempt on goal. A great example of this is Fruk’s fantastic piece of play against Osijek earlier this season, he calmly plays the ball through two defenders on the edge of the penalty box before wriggling through his opponents and getting off an excellent chance that he really should do better with.
In one-on-ones, Fruk is more than capable of beating his man before releasing the ball or letting a shot off on goal, however, Fruk may need to work on staying on his feet as he does have a tendency to go down quite softly if he loses possession in an attempted dribble and although this has worked on occasion for drawing fouls it has also led to counter attacks in dangerous areas of the opposition.
- Finishing- Outside of the frequency of his shooting, Fruk needs to work on his finishing in front of goal. He has managed just five goals from 29 shots inside the penalty area across this past calendar year including big misses against Rudeš, Slaven Belupo and Lokomotiva Zagreb. Appearing to lack in composure Fruk looks like he would benefit from additional time spent working on shots under pressure in the area as this could help take a weaker side of his game to the next level.
- Decision Making – As previously mentioned Fruk loves a shot from range, he has that element of Ryan Christie at Celtic about him. 49 shots from outside the area with just one finding the pack of the net and over 75% ending up off target paints a fairly accurate picture of Fruk in certain areas.
Often he will find himself alone in the final third after breaking on the counter or playing a quick series of passes before using his excellent close-control dribbling to take it past several players only to waste opportunity by taking a low-chance opportunity as he lacks the physicality to hold the ball up and wait for support.
March 2, 2023: Luka Vušković becomes the youngest scorer in Hajduk Split history at 16 years & 5 days old.
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) January 22, 2024
At 177cm (5’8) Fruk’s physicality is always going to be an issue against certain defenders, however, developing his hold-up play and toning down his tendency to shoot under pressure will help work out a few areas of concern that top-level possession-focused coaches may have.
Before I advance with this final section, it is only fair that I credit Target Scouting for this scouting report grading system. Please check them out and support the awesome work they do at targetscouting.com. At the end of each player review, I will be giving a final grade on a scale of A1 to D – in order to give a consistent and clear final review of how I see Fruk as a player now and where he could potentially end up.
The scale is as follows:
- A1 – Very good, could play higher
- A2 – Strong potential to play higher
- B1 – Good, strong player at this level
- B2 – Potential to be a strong player at this level
- C – Average for the level
- D – Below average for the level
Toni Fruk Final Grade – A2
Overall, I think Fruk is a very exciting young player. He has already surpassed Luka Modric’s best creative season in Croatia and is on track to surpass any of the top assist providers in the league over the past half-decade. It is very rare to see a player make game-ending passes so effortlessly and although he is a classic over-ambitious 10 from a shooting POV he is also a vintage focal point midfielder capable of playing against high and low blocks with relative ease.
Lovro Majer is the obvious comparison, however, I think Fruk needs to learn from the mistakes of Majer when it comes to his next steps. He needs to capitalise on this season and start plying his trade outside of Croatia but he needs to make sure it’s to a coach and team that truly understand what he is.
The worst case for Fruk would be to end up playing out wide in a tougher league, I would love to see what he could do at a top Belgian or Dutch club or in a middling Bundesliga team, but it has to be an attacking-focused coach who will utilise Fruk as a central based attacking midfielder.
Rijeka’s record sale is still Andrej Kramaric to Leicester for around nine million Euros, however, two to four million should be enough to encourage Rijeka to part ways with their new signing especially given he cost them absolutely nothing.
By: Liam Stewart / @LiamAStewart
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NK Rijeka