Buying players based on summer tournament performances is common practice. It's also a bad idea. Eye-catching performances under extremely specific conditions, over the course of only five or six matches, will often turn into overblown transfer fees and contracts that seem to last forever. That’s why it’s important to highlight lesser known players before the World Cup and take a deeper look who actually had impressive seasons and might end up breaking out in Russia for the world to see. Andrija Zivkovic is exactly that type of player.
Zivkovic plays for Serbia, a team with a solid talent pool. Thanks to a soft path to qualification, they competed with Ireland, Wales and Austria for the top two spots in their group, Serbia managed to earn a decent World Cup draw. While Brazil is likely to win Group E, second place is wide open. Serbia will only have to get by Switzerland and Costa Rica to advance.
Initially it seemed like Zivkovic might play a bit part at best. Serbia’s squad is mostly composed of players in or past the prime years of their careers. The eleven most used players by now former manager Slavoljub Muslin during qualification, where they topped their group with 21points while only losing once, average the ripe ol’ age of 29. This will, therefore, be the last tournament for a sizable portion of this group.
The appointment of a new manager, Mladen Krstajić, after the end of the qualifiers led to the recent integration of a few more interesting, younger, talents into the side. That includes not only Zivkovic, but the incredibly hyped Sergej Milinkovic-Savic as well, who, despite having over 7000 Serie A minutes under his belt, only debuted for Serbia in a friendly in November.
Before this year Zivkovic might have been best known as a Football Manager legend. He moved from Partizan to Benfica on a free transfer in the summer of 2016. While his talent was clear every time he stepped on the pitch, he was never given a chance at getting consistent playing time until early 2018. An injury to Filip Krovinovic, who otherwise could’ve been a World Cup revelation himself, left the team with a hole in midfield and no option to fill it other than, as it turns out, their most talented player. Zivkovic, a left-footed 21 year old who spent most of his career playing from wide, starred throughout the second half of the campaign as the left-sided center-midfielder in a 4-3-3.
His role was all about freedom: to roam into either of the wide areas with or without the ball, to arrive in the box in support of the lone striker or to aid in build-up. Zivkovic became the team’s creative dynamo and the numbers reflect that in a way that his 3 goals and 4 assists don’t fully capture.
Zivkovic’s 2.2 key passes per 90 minutes ranks him third best in the league for “central” players with over 1000 minutes, and the fact that 1.7 of those key passes came from open play situations makes that all the more valuable. His assists were all in repeatable contexts and the sheer number of situations he created for his teammates are proof of that.
He’s the kind of player to show up well in all kinds of passing models, completing a rather large and diverse number of difficult passes. His freedom to roam means he’s often compelled to drop and aid in build-up from deeper, where he pulls off longer side-switching passes with ease. He also moves wide where he executed 1.6 crosses per 90 – top 10 in the league – with a solid 26% accuracy.
Zivkovic is technically sublime. He passes the eye test with flying colors. His ability to use different parts of his foot: from the outside to the side and across the laces helps his passing range be as diverse as possible and gives him a ton of solutions even when space is limited. Often, he’ll delay a pass, making his own task more difficult, just so he can assure his teammate’s run will align with the timing of the ball.
Give him the ball in the final third and he’ll find a way to get his team up close and personal with the opposing goalkeeper. And, as much as the definition of “through-ball” leads to a snow-ball of questions for stats providers across this sport, the lists of players who play the most of them always seem to pick out guys on the upper echelon of technique. Zivkovic leads the league with 0.3 per 90.
His capacity to dribble is of major importance too. Beyond just beating players one against one and being able to unravel himself from tight situations –which he does, with two completed take-ons per 90 and around a 65% success rate, there's a lot of value in being able to carry the ball from a deep position all the way to the final third. That’s true even if the situation doesn't involve overcoming a player with any sort of YouTube-montage-worthy skill-move. He's sublime at it, capable of bursts of acceleration to create separation from his marker and put his ball-carrying abilities to use.
Zivkovic is by no means perfect.
He can still improve when it comes to his box arrivals and has some awareness issues when having his back towards goal – too often choosing against turning into space simply because he didn’t realize said space was there. But, his positional change has helped accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
Serbia used a 3-4-3 during the entirety of the qualification process, but over the last friendly breaks the new manager has taken out one of the center-backs to add a third midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 set-up depending on personnel. The line-up could well end-up accommodating Milinkovic-Savic ahead of Serbian mainstay Nemanja Matic and Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic. In this set-up Zivkovic is a front-runner to wreak havoc off the bench – also because he can fill in any creative role, either from wide or central – and to potentially unlock defenses such as Costa Rica’s.
Zivkovic is under contract with Benfica until 2021, but the constant need to sell by the Portuguese side combined with the fact that the Serb is one of the few valuable assets that could bring in revenue during this window, will make this a very interesting case to follow. Serbia have an intriguing national team and it will be interesting to see how their younger talent will stand-out among a solid foundation of personnel. Brazil will still likely tear through their group, but the Eastern European side has enough about them to overcome Costa Rica and Switzerland and finish in second place if they play their cards right. And if Zivkovic impresses during the process and earns himself a big money move, it will be justified not simply because of his performances this summer, but based on everything he accomplished before it.