44. Mario Mandžukić
Mario Mandžukić is a modern day football warrior, the type that teammates love and opponents hate to play against. Mandžukić is a two-way player who gives his all on the pitch. It’s common to see him pressuring defenders late in matches, tackling, and even tracking back 50-60 meters to cover his fullback. His heart on the pitch is impossible to measure as it pushes his teammates to fight for each other.
His statistics for Juventus give no justice to the overall impact on the pitch. In 2015-2016 he often started with Dybala in Allegri’s 3-5-2. Morata was the third striker who would fill in for ‘Mandzo’ or Dybala. Mario finished 2nd in goals with 10 to Dybala’s 19. In the summer of 2016, Juve made its largest purchase ever, paying €90m for Gonzalo Higuaín. Many thought Mandžukić would be on his way out, as it was clear that Higuaín and Dybala would start in Allegri’s 3-5-2. Mario decided to stay and fight for his place.
Mandžukić is a modern day #9. Mario’s strengths include one-touch finishes (feet or
head), hold-up play, an indomitable stamina, winning aerial duels, and endless effort both offensively and defensively. He excelled at Bayern for Jupp Heynckes and at Wolfsburg for Felix Magath. It’s very rare that a center forward presses fullbacks, midfielders, and even goalkeepers with the tenacity that Mario does. In his first season in Bavaria, Mandžukić usurped first-choice center forward Mario Gomez in the starting line-up, eventually winning the treble.
Mandžukić started off the 2016-17 season on the bench as a reserve, coming on for Higuaín or Dybala late in matches. January 22 vs. Lazio was the first time Allegri changed his formation to a 4-2-3-1, which allowed Higuaín to play in front of Mandžukić, Dybala and Cuadrado. Pushing Mandzo to left wing would line him up against smaller and weaker outside right backs. Center backs are normally stronger and Mario is used to battling with them. In his first start of the season, Mandzo would out jump Lazio’s right back Patric to assist a Dybala goal. Juve would score another through Higuaín in the 16th minute and win the match 2-0.
After that match, Allegri continued to use the 4-2-3-1 with Mandžukić on the left wing. Unlike many attackers, Mandzo never complained that he was further away from the goal. Many don’t know that he played on the wing with Dinamo Zagreb and Wolfsburg under Steve McManaman. He’s not a typical winger, as he has made his career as a target man, but pushing him to left wing would cause nightmare matchups for opposing coaches. His tall and strong frame easily overpowered the smaller right backs. Tactically, Mario is very strong player.
As a left-winger, he focused on blocking passing lanes and defending 1 vs 1. When left back Alex Sandro would make his runs forward, Mario would tuck back to left back and cover. On the offensive side, when Juventus pushed forward, defenses would be focused on Higuaín and Dybala, when Mario would be a third attacking threat, making dangerous runs on the left. Also, Bonucci’s long passes became a useful weapon as he often found Mario with balls over the top of the left back. Mario’s physical strength would give right backs problems the rest of the season. Mandžukić would score 7 goals, 4 assists and 36 key passes in Serie A 2016-17. The numbers may not be overly impressive but the team’s defense was excellent after making Mario a starter.
His importance in the Champions League cannot be overlooked. Mario played 90 minutes in every knockout match after the Round of 16. When Juventus was under pressure in their own half versus Barcelona and Monaco, Mario won 22 aerial battles (5 Barca/17 Monaco). Mandžukić scored 3 goals in Champions League for Juve and had 11 key passes. Only Higuaín (5) and Dybala (4) scored more goals than him. His most spectacular goal came in the Champions League Final against Real Madrid; in the 27th minute, he hit an incredible right-footed overhead kick into the upper
That goal tied the match 1-1 and gave Juventus a great opportunity to win the match. It was his 2nd goal in a Champions League Final, as he scored the first goal for Bayern in their win over Borussia Dortmund in 2013. Unfortunately, Juve would lose and have to settle for the Italian double, winning Serie A and Coppa Italia. A treble would have been a dream come true for Mario, but it was a wonderful season for him and Juventus.
“I believe that I’m giving everything on the pitch, whether it’s a sprint or a slide tackle or anything of that nature, then my teammates watching me will be spurred on to do the same,” says Mandžukić, summing up the main reason bianconeri love him-his humble, tireless team ethic. “I know that I can be a positive role model to them and that’s what I set out to do in each match. That’s the way I’ve played since I was young. It’s gotten me where I am today and it’s brought me a lot of success, so I’ll carry on doing it.”
By: Anthony Zoric/@AnthonyZoric