Adem Ljajić is one of the most divisive footballers of his generation. After making waves as a wonderkid in his native Serbia at Partizan Belgrade he was signed by Manchester United as a 17-year-old before the deal falling through at the last minute in dubious circumstances. He joined Fiorentina instead and has since appeared for some of Italy’s biggest clubs, provided moments of magic to marvel at, been highly inconsistent and caught up in numerous controversies. This is the story of one of football’s most fascinating players.
Ljajić joined Partizan from his hometown club FK Jošanica as a 14-year-old and made his debut for Partizan when he was 16 in July 2008. At this time he was dubbed the “Serbian Kaká”. Three months later, Ljajić had a trial at Manchester United who had been alerted to the outstanding potential the youngster was showing in Serbia. In January 2009, United announced they had signed Ljajić and his teammate Zoran Tošić from Partizan; Tošić joined United instantly but Ljajić would stay in Serbia to develop further ahead of moving to Manchester the following year. United had the youngster make regular trips to Manchester so they could check on his progress and they even interviewed him for the official website.
A young Ljajić in training with Manchester United in 2009.
Ljajić progress was evident, highlighted by some sparkling performances in the Partizan first team, notably in the 2009/10 Europa League group stages. Ljajić also established himself in the Serbian U21 national team in between his trips to Manchester to train with United. In October 2009, three months before Ljajić was due to join United permanently, Sir Alex Ferguson spoke of his excitement of the talent joining United soon.
However, when the deal was about to go through United pulled the plug out of nowhere. There was different reasons coming out of the club for this decision; the official one was because the Home Office had failed to grant Ljajić a work permit, a sentiment which was echoed by United’s assistant manager Mike Phelan. A United spokesperson, however, went on record stating that United had decided against completing the deal due to Ljajić “lack of progress”, saying they didn’t think he was any better than young players already at the club such as Tom Cleverley, Darron Gibson and, amazingly, Gabriel Obertan. The word from Serbia was that United had decided against paying the agreed price of £10million due to the club’s finances following spiralling debts.
“Stories about stagnation in my football development are nonsense. If Manchester United were really not satisfied with how much I’ve progressed in this year, I would not have been with Ferguson two months ago at the end of my last cycle of mandatory training at the club before moving to England. “The reason for the transfer not happening is that I couldn’t get a business licence [work permit].”
Whatever the reason, Ljajić dream was taken away, but he was given another chance just a month later as Fiorentina swooped in to sign the talent from Partizan in January 2010. The coach Cesare Prandelli gave the Serbian ten opportunities to play for La Viola under the second half of the season as the attacker bedded into his new surroundings. At the end of the season, Prandelli left to take charge of Italy and Ljajić compatriot Siniša Mihajlović was appointed head coach. Mihajlović arrival meant more opportunities for Ljajić who totalled 28 appearances and three goals for Fiorentina in all competitions. Mihajlović then left Fiorentina the following autumn and became national team manager of Serbia with Delio Rossi appointed at Fiorentina as his replacement.
Ljajić struggled under Rossi, and things came to its head in May 2012 with the team 2-0 down to Novara. Rossi decided to substitute Ljajić after only 32 minutes and the attacker responded by sarcastically applauding his coach when making his way to the bench. Rossi totally lost his head, grabbed Ljajić and attempted to punch him but was restrained by others on the bench. Rossi claimed Ljajić had insulted him verbally but these claims were rubbished by substitute Valon Behrami who said it hadn’t happened. Rossi was fired for his actions the same night.
Only a few weeks after this incident, Ljajić made negative headlines again. This time with the national team where he was banned by Mihajlović for refusing to sing the Serbian national anthem despite signing a contract enforced by Mihajlović in order to be allowed to play for Serbia. The contract rules stipulated all players must comply with the rules, including singing the national anthem prior to matches. Serbia’s national anthem, “God of Justice”, reads: “God our Master! Guide and prosper the Serbian lands and Serbian race!”. Ljajić, a Bosniak Muslim, stayed silent because of personal reasons and Mihajlović decision to ban him was backed by the Serbian football federation but caused controversy in the country and opinions across Europe.
Back on the pitch for the new season, Ljajić found a fourth coach in as many seasons at Fiorentina. In Vincenzo Montella’s free-flowing attacking football the creative soul of Ljajić thrived, scoring 11 Serie A goals and adding eight assists in 28 appearances. Ljajić developed a fruitful relationship on the pitch with the team’s top goalscorer, the Montenegrin Stevan Jovetic.
“Today Adem Ljajić had a great game. He has enormous talent and just needs to keep maturing. He has to prove this quality throughout the season”
-Vincenzo Montella, October 2012
Finally, Ljajić had found some consistency in his performances and he impressed with his goalscoring, creating and dribbling. His form prompted interest from AS Roma, who needed a replacement for the departing Erik Lamela. In coach Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3, Ljajić was stationed on either flank as a winger and contributed six goals in first year, followed by eight league goals in his second season as he finished as the team’s top goalscorer alongside Francesco Totti.
“I’ve said for 18 months that he has talent. I’m lucky to have no problems in that department (attack) so, in turn, I can give playing time to everybody. He played a great game, he had a fine goal and an assist to Nainggolan.”
-AS Roma coach Rudi Garcia, November 2014
Despite this, Ljajić had struggled to consistently deliver for Roma in the way they wanted and they decided he was surplus to requirements, despite being their league top scorer. He was loaned to Inter in the summer of 2015. Inter were excited to have him, to say the least.
“We always had a huge appreciation for Ljajic and even when he used to play for Fiorentina he’d cause us a great deal of trouble. He’s very talented and in Italy he already showed that he’s worth a lot. We didn’t think we could take away such an important striker from a direct opponent, and we’re pleased we managed it.”
-Inter’s sporting director Piero Ausilio, September 2015
Ljajić started slowly at Inter, but enjoyed a good run of form in the autumn as Inter topped Serie A at the winter break. Coach Roberto Mancini then gave the Serbian less and less opportunities and Ljajić finished with only three goals in 26 league matches, most of them substitute appearances. Inter’s form went downwards too and they missed out on even Champions League qualification. The excitement of his arrival was all gone as Inter decided against signing the attacker permanently.
So in the summer of 2016, Ljajić was at a crossroads. His career had seemingly spiralled out of its early promise at Partizan and he looked like a wonderkid wasting his talents. However, there was still some people who believed in the Serbian’s ability to create and finish. Torino’s sporting director Gianluca Petrachi had acquired a solid group of players in Turin but needed some creativity to take them to the next level. He found this at Roma in the shape of Ljajić (permanently) and Iago Falqué (loan) who both made the move to Turin. Incredibly, the new coach at Torino was Mihajlović, linking up with Ljajić for a third time and a first since their national team controversy.
Ljajić started incredibly on the left wing in Torino’s 4-3-3 and was superb in the early months of the season. His form then dipped a bit and he was increasingly kept on the bench in some games. But since January, Ljajić has been back in the eleven and in top form. Lately, Torino have changed their system to 4-2-3-1 and Ljajić is now played as a number 10 just behind Andrea Belotti. From there he has the freedom to move across the pitch to pick up the ball in dangerous positions where he can attack the opposition. The freedom he’s been granted has been key in his excellent run of form and at the time of writing, Ljajić has scored nine goals and assisted eight in Serie A for Torino this season. Three of those goals has come in the last five games where he’s played in the central number 10 role.
Adem Ljajić is an attacking midfielder capable of playing on either side and centrally behind the striker. His best role is undoubtedly the central number 10 role from where he can use all his creative genius to create chances and hurt the opposition. His dribbling ability is phenomenal, his acceleration rapid, his passing is excellent and his shooting is world class. All in all, he’s a truly complete attacking player technically, the doubts are purely mental. He’s on course for his best ever season and hopefully, at 25 years old, we’re now witnessing a more matured Ljajić who can keep this form going for the coming seasons. Last weekend’s game at Juventus was a good example of this as Ljajić perfectly executed free kick gave Torino the lead but they then had a man sent off. Ljajić was somewhat surprisingly kept on the pitch and worked very hard as Torino almost earned three points. Ljajić still has his peak years ahead of him and if he can be more consistent and more professional in training and cut off the controversy the Serbian can be labelled one of the best attackers in Italy.
Many superb talents have wasted their potential for different reasons, but Ljajić still has a whole lot of football in his body. The signs are there to say he’s matured as a player and as a man which will go a long way in regards to fulfilling his potential. I watched him live in January of this year and it was an absolute pleasure. The perfect first touch, the way he takes care of the ball, his dribbling; he was mesmerizing at times. In terms of pure technical football ability and creativity, Ljajić is one of the best in Europe but he’s been let down by inconsistency and a poor attitude for too long. It’s time he establishes himself at the top of his profession just as his ability suggests he can. If he does we’ll see him light up the biggest games in the biggest competitions in the coming years.
If so, Manchester United will rue their failure to complete the signing of the amazingly gifted Serbian magician Adem Ljajić.