If you’re a football fan on Twitter these days, you are sure to have seen something about Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Maybe it was just someone raving about his talent or someone who was certain he MUST be signed for their favourite club. Possibly it was a compilation of great goals, genius passes or jaw-dropping pieces of skill. If so, you were probably intrigued, which is what brought you here. This is a more balanced player profile of Italy’s hottest prospect at the moment, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the fantastic yet inconsistent midfielder excelling in Italy and on the verge of a mega-money move to one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Sounds familiar? Two years after Paul Pogba left Serie A, a new and somewhat similar player is making waves at the peninsula. Chances are Milinkovic-Savic will be the next €100 million player to move from a Serie A club.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was born in the Catalan town Lleida, about 130 km from Barcelona, in 1995 to Serbian parents. The reason he was born in Catalonia is his father, Nikola Milinkovic, was a professional footballer there. Sergej’s mother, Milana, was a professional basketball player so it’s clear he was born into a sporting family. In addition to his own exploits as a footballer so far, his younger brother Vanja currently plays for Torino after previously spending a few seasons at Manchester United. After moving back to Serbia as a kid, Sergej came through the ranks at Vojvodina where he made his debut as an 18-year-old in the 2013/14 season. At the end of the campaign, the youngster made a clever decision in opting to join Genk in Belgium. After a good season that saw him score five goals from midfield, Lazio’s superb scouting network picked him up in competition with Fiorentina. In his first season, 2015/16, the Serbian scored once in 25 appearances as he established himself in Serie A. Milinkovic-Savic was also key in the Serbian U20 national team which won the U20 World Cup in 2015. Last season he excelled in Simone Inzaghi’s side, scoring four goals and making seven assists in Serie A. This term, he’s improved dramatically in front of goal with nine goals to his name already in the league, eleven in all competitions, and some stunning performances.
What is he like as a player then? He excels in the final third where his creativity, his passing, dribbling and shooting ability make him a major force in Lazio’s attack. Add considerable physical strength and heading ability and you have a threat also from set-pieces and crosses. Defensively, his long legs, strength and intelligence make him a capable tackler and reader of the game. Basically he has everything you’d ask for in a midfielder but he undeniably excels in attack rather than defense.
This video highlights the quality of Milinkovic-Savic. He scores all types of goals; headers, shots from distance, goals from clever movement in the box and first time shots. His passing and the way he weights his passes are sublime and beautiful to watch. He also excels in 1 vs 1 situations where he showcases brilliant dribbling ability and skill. Added to his eleven goals this season, he’s also made three assists, averages 2.5 shots per game, 1.9 dribbles per game and 1.5 key passes per game. This season he also averages 53 passes per game, up from 37 last season, at a completion rate of 81%, also up from 73% last year. In short, he’s a tremendously gifted attacking midfielder with the intelligence to match his technical ability.
Defensively, Milinkovic-Savic is a good tackler and averages 1.9 tackles a game, as well as making 0.9 interceptions a game which highlights his ability of reading the game. His strength is a major asset and he can use it to wrestle his way around opponents and then use his long legs to dispossess them. His strength, speed and intelligence makes him an athlete in the true sense of the word.
Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi has used Milinkovic-Savic on the left in his midfield three in a 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 formation. Mostly, Lazio have used Luis Alberto as a number 10 behind Ciro Immobile which has created a midfield diamond with Alberto at the top, Lucas Leiva at the base, Marco Parolo to the right and Milinkovic-Savic to the left. Either side of the midfield diamond has been energetic wing-backs like Senad Lulic and Adam Marusic. The role suits Milinkovic-Savic perfectly; with the protection of Lucas and Parolo centrally and Lulic in wide areas, he’s been allowed to focus on his attacking play which has seen his performances soar. There’s a level of freedom in his movement in the final third where he links up with Alberto and Immobile to devastating effect. The whole system is in many ways set up perfectly for him to flourish as he’s protected well defensively and surrounded with like-minded creators in attack. This seems the best way to utilize his immense talent. Don’t get me wrong, Milinkovic-Savic can definitely defend but it seems a waste to deploy him in a more defensive role. He’s a creator, a free-spirited attacker and someone who should just be allowed to play and Inzaghi has given him a perfect platform to shine.
Has he no weaknesses then? At 23, of course he does. Sometimes he switches off defensively and his positioning can suffer, allowing opponents to attack the space behind him. He also needs to work on his consistency in games, as he can be brilliant for the first half and then go missing in the second. Until he dominates full games consistently, we can’t call him one of the best in Europe, but the potential to reach that level is without doubt there. Fix these slight problems, which might come naturally as he matures, and we have a world beater.
During the last few months, Milinkovic-Savic has been linked to some of the biggest clubs on the planet such as Manchester United, Chelsea, PSG and Juventus to name a few. Is he ready for a move to one of the biggest clubs? In short, yes. He has all the ability needed to be a success at all those clubs. The important thing to remember for whichever club pays the huge sum of money needed to prize the Serbian away from Rome is: what is the plan to maximize his talent? As stated previously, to be at his best he probably needs to be protected by a strong defensive structure and by two other midfielders in either a three-man midfield such as Lazio’s 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 or in a 4-3-3. He would also shine as a number 10 with a double pivot behind him. But sign him and play him as one of two central midfielders would not be the way to get the best out of a unique, complete talent. We’ve already seen how Manchester United has failed to get the best out of Pogba, a player perhaps even more talented than Sergej. The presence of Pogba at United make them a definite no for me as I struggle to work out how the two of them would be compatible. Chelsea would be interesting as I believe the midfielder’s mix of technical ability and physical strength would be perfect in England. The most appealing link is probably the one to Juventus, as that would keep him in Serie A, a league he’s showed he’s perfect for, in a side which will compete for the biggest honors in football.
To conclude, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a complete talent and a unique type of player. He’s been a revelation in Italy over the last two seasons and now I await the definite step up to the elite level, with all respect possible to Lazio. I think another season at Lazio would be very beneficial granted Inzaghi remains in charge, but I think Lazio will cash in on their prized asset in the summer. Wherever he ends up, the buying club, if they use him well, can count themselves lucky.