The ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate has always seemed to come up with a ‘best of both worlds’ conclusion for the magic formula of breeding a sports star, but if anybody has ever been born to be an athlete, it’s probably Nikola Vlašić.
Everton’s new signing, brought in to add punch and panache out wide in an expensive side curiously lacking in attacking verve, has competition coursing through his veins. The son of former decathlete Joško Vlašić and basketball player and cross-country skier Venera Vlašić, Nikola is hoping to match the exploits of his world champion high-jumping sister Blanka by making his way to the top of the footballing world – and above all others, it is his father Joško who has given him the tools to do it.
A gold medal winner himself at the 1983 Mediterranean Games, Joško has coached a number of his fellow Croatian athletes, including his daughter Blanka, and turned his attentions to Nikola when the future footballer was only four years old.
This constant physical activity has given Vlašić an impressive level of fitness, and from an early age he displayed strength and endurance far beyond his years, but his training was always primarily focused on honing the technique he would need to thrive in the world’s most popular sport. Vlašić has profited not only from his father’s expertise and experience, but his connections as well. Legendary Croatian manager Tomislav Ivić, who has won league titles in Yugoslavia, Croatia, Holland, Belgium, Portugal and France, has also had a hand in the youngster’s development, and this is evident in a tactical awareness which one would not expect from a teenager.
At Hajduk Split, one of the biggest clubs in his homeland, Vlašić stamped his name on the club’s history by becoming their youngest player and youngest goalscorer on his professional debut in the Europa League against Irish side Dundalk. Aged 16 years and 286 days, it was some feat. Six months after his 19th birthday, he hit another milestone with his 100th professional appearance for the club. By then, he was not just the club’s promising teenage tearaway, but probably its best and most consistent player as well– this being at Hajduk Split, a side with six league titles and 12 second-place finishes in the last 25 years.
Understandably, the vultures have circled. With the Majstori Sa Mora in less than brilliant financial shape, youngsters like Mario Pašalić, sold to Chelsea for around £3 million, represent an economic lifeline. Real Madrid, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur have been linked with Vlašić ever since that debut strike in Ireland, but Joško’s guiding hand has kept the youngster grounded. Vlašić’s father was keen for him to stay in Split until at least 2016 in order to aid his development with regular playing time, and the player has benefited from the experience. He has captained the team, established himself as a first-team fixture and played in Europe, registering 13 goals and 20 assists along the way.
Eventually, though, Vlašić was always going to have to leave Croatia to truly blossom. His side’s Europa League qualifying play-off against Everton this season proved the perfect shop window – after two mature performances in a losing cause, Ronald Koeman’s interest in the youngster firmed up and he was brought to Merseyside for €10 million, the seventh-highest transfer fee ever received for a player in the Croatian league.
With almost £150 million spent by the Toffees this summer, there is considerable pressure for Everton to deliver a more successful and consistent season than they managed last campaign-even without Romelu Lukaku. But with the term ‘pushy parents’ taken to a whole new level, Vlašić is well-equipped to deal with pressure. He has been doing it his whole life.
He has already spoken of his excitement to be playing in the Premier League alongside big names such as Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurðsson, saying that he has been ‘smiling all day’ thinking about making his first appearance at Goodison Park. Only turning 20 this October, he seems mentally ready for the challenge and eager to make his mark.
In those Europa League matches with Everton, Vlašić played in his most natural role as a right winger. Though versatile enough to play on either flank, in midfield, as a secondary striker or even as a genuine number nine, it is out wide where he does his best work. Reasonably two-footed, Vlašić is not as quick as some wide players in the Premier League, but is capable of causing headaches for any full-back in the league. With excellent game intelligence and vision, close control and physical strength, he is adept in one-on one situations and has a knack of being able to squirm out of congested areas with the ball at his feet. This ability to retain possession under pressure should serve him well in the English game.
What will concern defenders most is his ability to play a number of roles from the same position out on the wing. An out-an-out winger delivering crosses, an inside forward cutting inside to fire off a powerful shot, or a wide playmaker capable of slowing the game down and playing a killer pass – this versatility will make him a useful asset ahead of what promises to be a rigorous season for Ronald Koeman’s Everton.
He should also help the Toffees in a defensive sense, as he is irritatingly tenacious off the ball and willing to chase opponents and hound them into a mistake, with the stamina necessary to keep this up for the full 90 minutes. With their defence looking better thanks to the arrivals of Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane, and this level of harassment awaiting opponents from Vlašić and Idrissa Gueye, teams won’t be relishing taking Everton on this season, regardless of their poor early form.
Whether Koeman’s signings will click, or whether Vlašić will adapt to life at a higher level, is impossible to predict. Some players make the step up, others simply do not.
What is certain is that Vlašić has every opportunity to thrive in the Premier League, if he is given game time. Plenty of technically adept youngsters aren’t physically capable of adapting, but that shouldn’t be the case with Vlašić. Plenty of physical specimens don’t develop the brain, and plenty more simply don’t handle the pressure. Again, Vlašić should be fine here.
What will make or break his time in England is whether or not he can improve his end product. 13 goals and 20 assists isn’t a bad return, but he will need to build on that if he is to win a place in the first team and keep it, particularly when Yannick Bolasie eventually returns to the fray. It’s simple, really. Score some goals and bag some assists – Vlašić has been doing both since he was
four years old.
By: Sam France/@sjakef