8. Sergej Milinković-Savić
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is undoubtedly the quintessential modern midfielder, combining both fantastic physicality and technical ability.
Born in Lleida, Spain, he was raised by parents who were both professional athletes, his father having played football and his mother basketball. Sergej had sports in his DNA, and at 11 years old, he moved to Serbia and joined the youth academy of Vojvodina., progressing through the youth system to win back-to-back national youth championships. Eager not to lose their hot prospect, Vojvodina offered a 17-year-old Sergej a professional contract, which was duly signed in 2012.
A first full season of professional football in Serbia was enough to convince Belgian club Genk to spend €1m on him, with the Serbian signing a five-year contract. Again, the step up proved no problem for Sergej, as he scored five goals in just 24 appearances. Again, as he consistently put in head-turning performances, he gained admiring glances of some of Europe’s bigger clubs, but it was Lazio of Italy who pulled the trigger and signed the young Serbian in 2015.
Italy, known for its tactically based ethos, would prove to be the litmus test for just how good Sergej can become, but a promising start was disrupted towards the end of his first season in the 2015-16 campaign due to a thigh injury. Still, in the 2016-17 season, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic became one of Europe’s foremost breakout stars. Apart from the occasional game, Milinkovic-Savic settled into a central midfield position and rose to the fore with his ever-expanding skill set.
What makes the 22-year-old Serbian so good, to start, is his impressive physicality. Standing at 1.92m tall, he has the frame to dominate most central midfielders in Serie A, but despite his size, Sergej has great mobility and his work ethic is fantastic. His obvious domination in aerial duels is coupled with his quick feet and a fast-thinking football brain.
His size and aerial domination could trick you into thinking he is a certain type of player, a destroyer, a winner of tackles, the enforcer of the midfield. This could not be further from the truth: Sergej only averages 1.73 tackles per game compared to his midfield partner Lucas Biglia’s tally of 3.17 last season. His reading of the game and quality positioning allows him to average 1.79 interceptions per game, only bettered in midfield by Biglia again, whose importance in allowing the creative flair of Sergej to come to the fore cannot be understated.
His aforementioned quick football brain finds him at the hub of the Lazio counter-attacking style; his passes in the middle third of the pitch are usually immaculate. Dropping deep to receive the ball from the centre-backs, his dribbling is a huge asset to his game and allows rapid movement up the pitch, using his presence to hold off any defender trying to regain possession. Always scanning and always aware of his teammate’s position, his combination play with his full-back and winger allows a quick transition from the middle to the attacking third, as soon as he finds the right pass to release his winger.
This past season, Milinkovic-Savic evolved from an unheralded diamond in the rough to a midfield powerhouse. His superb breakout season owes itself to one noticeable change in his game: his timing of runs into the penalty area has drastically improved.
Sergej’s vision and exceptional passing range is another skill he has greatly improved this past season; with such a talent on the wing as Felipe Anderson, the ability to switch the play quickly is essential. His positional sense and spatial awareness allows the young Serbian to find the time to execute these cross-field passes again and again, allowing Lazio to counter quickly and effectively. Lazio’s fantastic season under Simone Inzaghi was built on a quick, unrelenting counter-attack, and Milinkovic-Savic’s correct passing weight and delicate first touch allowed Lazio to soar into 5th place, a dramatic improvement from last season.
From vertical passes to break any defensive deep block, to quick layoff passes that release the pace of striker Ciro Immobile, to diagonal switches of play to either wing to get in behind defences, Sergej can do it all. Playing under a press is no problem either, give him a quick one-two, and the Serb will be in prime position to launch a rapid attack. His nine assists last season highlight his eye for a pass and awareness of the situation around him. In regards to his work in and around the penalty area, five goals is not a bad tally, but it could be improved considering his obvious threat from set piece situations.
As mentioned before, Sergej’s passing in the middle third is exceptional, with a pass completion percentage ranging from the upper 80 percentile to the lower 90 percentile. However, his rates of completion dip once you take into account his passing in the final third–dropping to 74.3% overall. Sometimes overly ambitious, looking for that killer pass a little too soon, this is an art that will become more refined in time. It will be interesting to see how he copes with the loss of his midfield partner Lucas Biglia, who has moved to AC Milan, but hopefully a partnership with Lucas Leiva will not disturb the flow of Lazio’s midfield too much.
With the likes of English Premier League clubs as Liverpool and Manchester United linked with the creative Serbian, it will be interesting to see if Lazio can fight off their attentions. But at just 22 years old and already the creative hub in one of Italy’s top six teams, it seems the sky is the limit for him. Just a little more application in the final third could see the Serbian international rise to the very top of the game.
By: Mark Neale/@neale_mark