Although only 17, Zivkovic is no stranger to the pressure of comparison – the last striker to move from Groningen to Ajax recently joined Barcelona for obscene amounts of money, while Zivkovic’s goal on the opening day of last season usurped none other than Arjen Robben’s record as youngest ever goal scorer for the club.
He was reportedly tracked by almost all of Europe’s elite clubs last year but decided to move to Ajax, the club that spawned the likes of Ibrahimovic, Cruyff and Van Basten; which was probably the most logical move given some of the cautionary tales of leaving the Eredivisie too early (I’m looking at you, Castaignos). Groningen only received a small amount of compensation but a sell on clause means that, were Zivkovic to make the big money move that *touch wood* seems inevitable, they would significantly cash in.
The son of a Serbian mother and a father from Curacao, he is eligible to play for either Serbia or the Netherlands, but has already featured in youth sides for the latter. There’s a kind of weird lack of Dutch strikers at the moment – after RVP and Huntelaar, their most known, genuine centre forwards are…err…Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Luuk De Jong. Although Depay, Lens and the seemingly immortal Robben can and did play there in Van Gaal’s eternally changing 5-3-2-thing, Zivkovic and PSV’s Jurgen Locadia are currently the only real hopes for an actual number 9 to succeed Robin Van Persie.
Zivkovic is more of a natural striker/poacher than a tricky dribbler, as is shown by only 0.67 successful dribbles per 90, making the comparisons to Robben and Suarez a little redundant when it comes to play style. He was first noticed by Groningen scouts for his pace and agility, two aspects that are still defining features in his predatory game.
All 11 of his Eredivisie goals last season came from inside the box, with 2 being headers and the rest coming from his preferred right foot. Managing 0.67 NPG90 and a 19.23% conversion rate is tremendous for someone so young, even if there is some inflation due to regularly being used as a substitute. To put that in context, Locadia and Castaignos scored 0.43 and 0.48 NPG90 respectively, while both being over 3 years older. In fact, Zivkovic’s scoring rate was even slightly higher than Finbogasson’s (the Eredivisie top scorer last season), who churned out 0.62 NPG90.
All Zivkovic really lacked in his breakthrough season was creative output, but this could just be a consequence of inexperience. Instinctively, I feel like assist rates would be more dependent on experience than finishing; a goal is always in the same place but your teammates aren’t. Interestingly, Ajax’s academy somewhat specialises in the two areas where he could improve the most – playmaking and using both feet. Zivkovic will also be under the tutelage of one of the best creative forwards of all time in Dennis Bergkamp, so I’d say there’s more than enough reason to think that he may be able to iron out his weaknesses over the coming seasons. Considering he could still be a decade off of his peak, I expect Richairo Zivkovic to achieve big things in the future.