A modern player: unwrapping the mystery of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s talent
I did not quite understand monochrome paintings. It is an important part of the modern art movement, but I did not know how to appreciate it. I looked at that picture with no pattern but a single color and texture in a museum and I had no clue what made it so special. This was this view I had held for a very long time until I visited an exhibition a couple of years ago. It resembled all other exhibitions, only this time it had a little explanation for each piece. I learned that this painting with no pattern but a single color and texture was special because the artist had spent a few years on honing his craft of making the paint. When it dried, the paint showed a glaze that resembled the surface of the glass; the spectacle of this painting is the craft of making the glaze. Peeling the surface helps me understand the brilliance of the monochromatic painting and similar to Lazio’s Serbian powerhouse, we need to do the same to appreciate the talent of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
Milinkovic-Savic was touted to be the ‘next big thing’ when he scored 12 goals and provided two assists in the Serie A TIM last season. No other midfielder scored more goals than him; the closest midfielders were Sami Khedira from Juventus and Bryan Cristante from Atalanta with nine goals each. Top clubs – such as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, etc. – were linked with a big-money move for the player, even after his none-spectacular showing in the World Cup. However, Lazio turned down a rumored €120m offer from Milan. President Claudio Lotito had high hope – he believed that many clubs would pay a lot more money than €120m for the Serbian if Milinkovic-Savic could continue to improve and shine. Many have called that plan a gamble, and it has not paid off; Milinkovic-Savic has only scored three goals this season. The fans even staged a protest insulting their last season’s hero and everyone is calling the Serbian a one-season-wonder. It now seems as if Lotito’s decision to not cash in looks like a huge mistake. But that logic is flawed for so many reasons.
First, Milinkovic-Savic’s last season’s goal-scoring record was not sustainable; he scored 12 goals from 6.58 Expected Goals (xG), meaning that he scored at a 1.82 goals/xG ratio or finishing. People may debate whether finishing is a skill, but no striker in the big four European leagues can sustain such a goal scoring ratio in the long run, even with players like Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Harry Kane. He is scoring at 0.85 goals/xG, similar to Ronaldo. Critics that believe Milinkovic-Savic is a top player solely because of his last season’s scoring record are delusional; they have built their expectation on the Serbian on flawed logic. Secondly, aside from his finishing, his other numbers are also no worse, but better than those of the previous campaign; he averages the same amount of xG and Expected Assists (xA) as he did last season. Moreover, he is more involved in the build-up this year, as shown by his ~10% increase of xBuild-up. Lazio’s ultra’s insulting banners don’t make sense: Milinkovic-Savic has improved this season as measured by several critical performance-related parameters. However, numbers can mean little without a proper context or comparison. You want to find a player that has gone through a similar experience, played in a similar position, and competed in a similar league. For Milinkovic-Savic, that comparison should be made against Paul Pogba; both have participated in the Serie A TIM and play as a left central midfielder in a 3-5-2, and were deemed ‘the next big thing’ – you cannot find a better comparison.
Milinkovic-Savic’s number this year and Pobga’s in his best Juventus’ year look almost the same; according to Understat, the Serbian averages 0.21xG, 0.20xA, and 0.36 xBuildup per 90 minutes this year while the French wizard averaged 0.26xG, 0.21xA, and 0.35xBuildup per 90 minutes when he played for Juventus. Pobga had more xG than the Serbian, but he also played for a stronger team than Milinkovic-Savic’s Lazio. My calculation of their performances based on a normalized score of xG, xA, and xBuildup even put Milinkovic-Savic ahead of Pogba (they would both be ranked better than 95% of all Serie A players in the last five years.) If Pogba was worth €105m, Milinkovic-Savic should be worth just as much. Despite all these similarities, Pogba and Milinkovic-Savic have different playing styles; both players stand over 6’3, but Pogba is more technical than Milinkovic-Savic. If we calculate a ratio of each action type among all actions a player makes, more than 8% of Pogba’s touches is a dribble, compared to Milinkovic-Savic’s 4.5%. Moreover, Pogba’s dribble has a 60% success rate, compared to Milinkovic-Savic’s 53%. Albeit being somewhat inferior technically, the big Serbian exploits his hulking physique to maximize his offensive game; more than 11% of Milinkovic-Savic’s touches is the aerial challenge (compared to only 4% for Pogba). His physical advantage is a big part of Lazio’s attacking scheme.
Lazio almost always plays in the 3-5-2 under Simone Inzaghi. Their central midfielders are often composed of Lucas Leiva as a deep-lying playmaker and two box-to-box midfielders in Milinkovic-Savic and Marco Parolo. They do not use a lot of give-and-go passes between the three midfielders. Instead, Lazio’s attack features a lot of long balls – originated from the keeper, the defender, or the wing back – that targets Milinkovic-Savic. When used in such a role, he plays like a typical forward or striker who would use his body to back down the defender and use the header or the short pass to create a shooting opportunity for the overlapping players. The PassSnoar of the Milinkovic-Savic’s backward key passes looks a lot closer to a typical left forward in the 3-5-2 than the left central midfielder or Pogba when he played for Juventus.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has a unique style of play. As a left central midfielder in Lazio's 3-5-2, he attacks like a forward. A significant portion of his key passes is the backward pass from the hold-up play typical for a striker. pic.twitter.com/lxt55iuDkY
— Cheuk Hei Ho (@Tacticsplatform) December 27, 2018
Milinkovic-Savic’s physical style doesn’t fit with those of the typical superstars like Messi and Ronaldo in the age of possession dominance, but you can still achieve great things with it. You rarely see teams use it because you don’t always have players that can combine physicality and technique so well. We can envision Milinkovic-Savic’s talent with a good analogy. That player is Mario Mandzukic.
Sergej's play style is closer to Mandzukic than Pogba
If we compare the % of player' activities, Sergej is more similar to forwards than midfielders in a typical 352. His play is also closer to Mandzukic 's than Pogba's. W
Will discuss these comparisons in a later piece. pic.twitter.com/C2OIekX7nn
— Cheuk Hei Ho (@Tacticsplatform) December 30, 2018
If we again break down the player’s style by calculating the ratios of all the action types to his total number of actions and cluster them based on the similarity between players, Milinkovic-Savic is closer to Mandzukic or a forward in the 3-5-2 than a central midfielder. The Croatian uses his massive frame to bully the opponent’s fullback in Juventus. Mandzukic can do that because he is technical and quick enough to operate on the flank. Some critics call him a “target wing.” Like him, Milinkovic-Savic is also a hybrid player. The big Serbian can either be called a “target midfielder” or even a “false-eight.” These hybrid players are exciting because they resemble the basketball’s use of the mismatch to create a temporary advantage; a sluggish center is isolated to defend against a speedy point guard on the perimeter, or a small defender is forced to take on a mighty big man in the paint. You don’t always see it in soccer because the soccer pitch is so much bigger than a basketball court. Different areas involve different types of activities; you usually want speedy players on the wing but technical crafters to operate in the congested center. Most players are designed for a handful of activities and hence areas. Mandzukic and Milinkovic-Savic are the exceptions rather than the rule and that rarity makes them dangerous. They are difficult to defend against because you don’t train a player to prepare for such a rare encounter.
You don’t always have a big fullback that can battle against Mandzukic because every other winger is small and quick. But think about all those mismatches Manduzkic has exploited against the opponent’s fullbacks in the big games: the goals against Real Madrid in the UCL last season and those against Napoli, Milan, Inter, and Roma this year. They have kept Juventus above their opponent in the crucial encounters. In the same way, when you buy Milinkovic-Savic, you are purchasing that opportunity to create the mismatch that almost no one else can offer.
Milinkovic-Savic may well move to a new club in the near future. Buying him should involve not only a lot of cash but also a lot of consideration. Any impulsive purchase will lead to a waste of money and talent if you are not able to understand his talent and brilliance.
You can follow Cheuk Hei Ho on Twitter @TacticsPlatform for more interesting and helpful statistics!