Just like the Frenchman, the Serbian has been physically and technically blessed, but the Lazio ace has been also afflicted by the same lack of versatility
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Paul Pogba have a lot in common.
They are two extravagantly gifted, much-coveted midfielders who share many of the same physical and technical attributes, as well as many of the same mental and tactical flaws.
They also divide opinions. Nowhere was this better illustrated than during award season.
Paul Pogba’s inclusion in last season’s PFA Team of the Year sparked widespread bemusement, given the Manchester United star’s form was largely dire either side of the two-month purple patch that coincided with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replacing Jose Mourinho as manager in December.
That was nothing, though, compared to the shock that followed the announcement of Milinkovic-Savic as the Best Midfielder in Serie A for 2018-19. The Serbian hadn’t even been the best midfielder at Lazio.
Granted, Milinkovic-Savic improved during the second half of the campaign and it was he who scored the crucial opening goal in the Coppa Italia final win over Atalanta.
However, such decisive contributions were few and far between last term.
In general, Milinkovic-Savic’s performances had been as underwhelming as those he produced at last summer’s World Cup, when Serbia bowed out at the group stage.
Before the tournament, he was being touted as a €100 million soccer professional – and it was easy to understand why.
He was coming off the back of a season in which he had netted 14 goals in all competitions for Lazio – not one of which had come from the penalty spot – as well as racking up eight assists, prompting Fabio Capello to label him “The [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic of the midfield.”
Last term, though, Milinkovic-Savic netted just seven times, and contributed only three assists.
Agent Mateja Kezman had a point when he stated, “All young players have ups and downs. People often forget that he’s not a striker. His job isn’t to score. He does a lot for the team during a game.”
However, it has been worth noting that he hadn’t even started the Coppa Italia final and was only introduced, with 12 minutes remaining, because of an injury to Luis Alberto.
In his defence, there were mitigating circumstances surrounding his dip in his productivity.
As the man himself pointed out in an interview with DAZN , he played in a slightly deeper position in 2018-19, in behind attacking midfielder Luis Alberto.
Obviously, that could partly explain his reduced output from an offensive perspective in terms of shots, chances created and dribbles completed, but it’s not as if there was an increase in his defensive efficacy last season.
Although he improved even further in the air, winning more headers and racking up more aerial clearances, Milinkovic-Savic made far fewer successful passes, had far fewer touches, won far fewer duels and won back possession on far fewer occasions.
In short, he was far less influential in 2018-19 and, as the stats underline, that can’t just be attributed to the slight shift in position, which shouldn’t have been an issue anyway for a midfielder previously lauded for his ability to play anywhere.
However, not everyone was surprised by Milinkovic-Savic’s difficulties in adapting to a more withdrawn role.
Indeed, it has been worth remembering that it has been unlikely that he would have even travelled to Russia for the 2018 World Cup had it not been for the dismissal of Slavoljub Muslin, who had overseen Serbia’s qualification campaign.
The coach’s refusal to pick Milinkovic-Savic had played a pivotal role in his sacking. Muslin felt that the 24-year-old lacked the requisite skills and characteristics to play in a midfield two in his preferred 3-4-3 formation.
“He’s playing well for Lazio – so what?” he once replied, when quizzed about Milinkovic-Savic’s sensational Serie A form.
“[Karim] Benzema has been a key striker at Real Madrid and has won three Champions Leagues in a row and he has been not in the French national team, yet France don’t play badly because of that.”
Muslin would doubtless now argue that Milinkovic Savic’s subsequent struggles, in Russia and Italy, have proven him correct.
Obviously, if used in his preferred position in a midfield three, and afforded the freedom to get forward, he could excel at Old Trafford. He certainly has the right mix of strength and skill to cope with the intensity of the Premier League.
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“If he went to the Premier League, he would be great,” former Lazio and Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo told Goal last year. “He plays very well as a physical midfielder and he gets into the box almost effortlessly.”
However, with United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation in pre-season, one wonders if Milinkovic-Savic has been really the right fit for his side.
In that sense, he really would be the perfect replacement for Pogba, a tremendously gifted but tactically limited midfielder who often poses as many questions as he answers.