Luka Jović’s transfer to Real Madrid is a perfect marriage of skills and need.
Jović is only 21 years old and he’s really really good at finding space to get shots for himself. Real Madrid are desperately in need of a high volume shooter to lead their attack. The young Serbian’s transfer from Eintracht Frankfurt to one of the biggest stages in the world should be a roaring success if manager Zinedine Zidane can successfully meld that skill to his team’s obvious need.
Let’s start with Jović. Last season he took 3.70 shots per 90 minutes. That number places him third in the Bundesliga (among players who played at least 1500 minutes) behind only Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski and Hoffenheim’s Ishak Belfodil. Across Europe’s big five leagues he’s 14th overall. Of the thirteen players ahead of him, only Kylian Mbappe is younger.
Additionally, not a single one of Jović’s shots came from a direct free kick. Unlike some of the games most famous shot getters, Jović doesn’t get to pad the numbers with the kind of low expectation dead ball bombs that Cristiano Ronaldo is famous for taking and Lionel Messi converts at historic rates. It’s no surprise then that Jović’s expected goals per shot of 0.13 stacks of quite favorably against the players who shoot more than him. Only Mbappe, Lewandowski, Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik (barely, at 0.14) both take more shots and have a higher per shot xG. Jović takes a lot of really good shots. It’s what he does.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, desperately need a high-volume shooter and goal scorer. The team never replaced Ronaldo. Unsurprisingly, this made the team’s attack worse. They went from taking 18.58 shots per match, generating 1.91 xG per match in 2017-18 to taking 15.24 shots and 1.33 xG.
But, while Jović’s skills are a perfect answer to Madrid’s glaring need, integrating those skills tactically into the existing structure will be more complicated. For starters, the man who currently occupies the starting forward role on Madrid, Karim Benzema, despite being 31 years old, remains excellent. Even though his 21 league goals last season come with the caveat that three were penalties and the remaining 18 were pretty far ahead of his xG of 11.92, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that during a season full of chaos, he was a consistent rock leading the line, for much of the season as Madrid’s only real goal scoring threat.
For years Benzema was the perfect foil for Ronaldo, facilitating Ronaldo’s high usage rate by only taking the best shots for himself while committing himself to doing much of the table setting. In Ronaldo’s last season, Benzema took only 2.28 shots per 90 minutes, but having an efficient xG per shot of 0.16. Put it all together and that ends up at 0.37 xG per 90. Last season he compensated for Ronaldo’s absence by shooting a little more, 2.89 times per 90, but a little less efficiently, 0.12 xG per shot (which sure doesn’t end up mattering when you have the kind of finishing season that Benzema did, just don’t expect that finishing season to happen again as a matter of course). The result was a strikingly similar 0.35 xG per 90.
Averaging a little over a third of an expected goal per game is a little light for an elite forward, but Benzema more than makes up for it with his creative work. He brings so much to the table that it’s more than forgivable that his goal scoring is a touch worse than the best forwards in the world. But, after a year of watching him step into the scoring spotlight, and not see his xG climb much higher than it had been, it’s fair to say that for Madrid to operate at its best, they need a player who generates shots beside Benzema. The question shouldn’t be which of Benzema and Jović will start, but whether the two of them can play together.
Answering that question involves talking about another transfer. Eden Hazard is, of course, widely rumored to be on his way to Madrid. That signing would complete the front three. The real question is can Hazard, Benzema and Jović all coexist. And it’s not clear that the answer to that question is yes, talented as all those players may be.
We’ve talked about Benzema. Jović is certainly comfortable with a striker partner, he played as part of a narrow attacking trio at Frankfurt, with Sebastian Haller alongside and Ante Rebić slightly deeper. They were supported by wing backs in a very conservative system. It’d be different at Madrid obviously, but playing off Benzema should be well within his wheelhouse. Hazard, obviously has spent most of his career on the left of either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 with occasional forays into center forwardom.
So, what’s the problem? Well, during Zidane’s time implementing a system built around Ronaldo and Benzema, he consistently had to find solutions to keep the team more or less stable. The solutions took a few different forms. The rare moments when Gareth Bale was healthy he was such an athletic beast that he could fully contribute to the front three while also being a traditional winger defending one side of the pitch. Other times a more workmanlike third, Lucas Vázquez, was preferred. Or, finally, Zindane deployed an Isco type as the third, a player who has the possession control tendencies of a more traditional midfielder. Hazard is none of those things.
The potential of this new front three is mouth-watering. Sure Jović isn’t yet, and probably never will become, Ronaldo, but with the added creativity of Hazard in the mix, that unit is likely to be as potent as the one that came before. But Zidane will have to find some way to balance that plan if he wants to keep from getting carved up by good teams at the other end. Maybe that means keeping the fullbacks conservatively positioned, or no longer being able to field increasingly immobile Luka Modric and the never very mobile Toni Kroos at the same time against good teams. Maybe it means another bigtime midfield signing (is that Paul Pogba’s music?).
This is not an impossible tactical challenge to overcome, and it’s one that probably won’t rear its ugly head against bad teams beaten back under an onslaught, but it’s one that will lurk behind Zidane’s choices all season. Can he afford to start both strikers in big games against top notch opposition? If not, who sits? Does Hazard provide enough creativity that it makes sense to prioritize Jović over Benzema, or will Benzema’s all around great game bring out goal scoring in Hazard such that it’s Jović who misses out?
Eventually this will work itself out. There will only be a couple of years at most where Benzema is still at the top of his game and Jović, provided he doesn’t struggle on the bigger stage, will become the starter before too long. But, in the meantime, for the upcoming season, Madrid’s primary tactical challenge will be whether or not a new look front three can all play together. If they can, Madrid’s time away from the top of Europe’s pyramid may be very short indeed.