Red Star Belgrade is at the new beginning. After the lucrative bunch of years under Vladan Milojević, this winter they went for a staff change and appointed club and Serbian football legend Dejan Stanković as their new manager. The switch in the managerial position expectedly brought with it some modifications in style of play and usage of individuals, resulting in a complete change of approach after the month of their work together.
The biggest news for the Red and Whites are the promotions of youngsters into the important first-team roles, starting with Željko Gavrić and Strahinja Eraković who spent the first part of the season in their filial Grafičar in the Serbian Second division. Also, the young players who were in the squad during the autumn got their minutes and responsibilities in Stanković’s system and now are the key players for his tactics to succeed.
Veljko Nikolić and Njegoš Petrović are the two players who made the biggest leap under the new coach as they got the chance to become regular starters and carry the team’s ideas as, what seems like, the main catalysts of Red Star’s new game.
The two 20-year-olds are compatible midfielders with two different skillsets and they open up the space for each other which allows them to play together and bring their side’s play on a whole new level. If they continue their development in the same manner as they started from the beginning of the second part of the season, they will easily become key guys in Serbian football, and high-value targets for Europe’s top-flight teams.
This tactical analysis scout report will show you what are Nikolić and Petrović’s roles in the new manager’s tactics and what are their biggest strengths that bring the spotlight to them and point them out as the possible hottest goods in future transfer windows.
High positioning and the „in-between“ play
In the past three years, Serbian champions got their good results playing the well-organised defensive football with discipline as their number one idea during the time and it was obvious that that will change after they went for a manager switch. After Stanković came, it was clear that they will focus more on possession-based football, trying to utilize the potential of their young midfielders, so Petrović and Nikolić got their chances to show what they got.
The likes of Marko Marin and Rajiv van la Para, who were the highest-paid players of Red Star, exited Rajko Mitić stadium and opened up the spots for fresh blood who came in the form of the two midfielders. They did a great job during the winter preparations and locked themselves in the starting lineup, with Njegoš Petrović playing in the box-to-box role, while Veljko Nikolić is the true embodiment of the “number ten” we used to love.
Here we can see the standard initial setup of Red Star’s tactics with Petrović at the right defensive midfielder position and Nikolić starting higher and closer to his forwards. Although that is the most commonly their opening idea, this formation goes through a lot of modifications throughout the match and usually looks a little bit different with both of the youngsters positioned higher in the half-spaces, but with different tasks.
It is common for them to switch sides and don’t play that strict in the left or right inner corridor. Keeping everything in mind, Nikolić is time and again the one player who comes to position himself closer to the ball in the gaps on the overloaded side due to his positioning skills and good passing game. Meanwhile Petrović goes to the further half-space from where he provides an in-deep option or support to his teammate.
While the two of them are mostly close to the action, wingers play widely and wait for them to isolate them with passes from the midfielders. The two young Serbs are good under pressure and often manage to find forward passes when they are in tough positions which enables Red Star to play in the tight zones thrive.
Nikolić and Petrović often “work for each other”, opening the passing lanes for one another by dragging the opposition’s attention to themselves. Those setups frequently happen in the final third of the pitch where highly positioned Njegoš commonly tries to occupy the half-space in order to call defenders to guard him while his playmaker breaks open in the same position on the opposite side.
In the picture above, there is an example of their good cooperation in the high zones of the pitch. They both tend to operate in the gaps between the lines, with Nikolić feeling more comfortable when his job is to assist from these areas, and Petrović trying to run-in and endanger the opponent’s goal. That leads to the first of two playing mostly as a supportive player who tracks down the actions of his team brilliantly and provides his attackers with a non-stop passing option after which he gets the keys of the play progress to himself.
The number 22 senses the free space between the opposition’s lines and comes closer to the action so he could enable their attack to move forward. He is also good at winning the second balls out of similar setups. Whilst he still has a lot to work on his physicalities, he has good timing and doesn’t step up from the duel against tougher players.
As we mentioned a few times before, Petrović isn’t the player whose main strength is the passing game – although he is not bad in it – but it is the perfect sense for space and ability to overlap down the full length of half-spaces which makes him a great box-to-boxer. He, on the other hand, has remarkable physical skills and has a long step that enables him to conquer the field both on and off the ball. When positioned higher, he tends to go for the space between the full-back and centre-back, allowing his side an extra-option in the closing stages of attacks.
Petrović’s body orientation helps him gain an advantage in those situations. He positions himself on the defender’s closer shoulder and does a fast turn from where he goes directly in the empty space in full steam leaving the direct guard behind him and going into the opportunity. A similar thing happens when he is positioned even higher and waiting for the long ball from his defenders. The midfielder tries to gain an initial advantage by opening up his body and sitting at the edge of an offside, timing his run perfectly and getting the in-deep balls in wider positions from where he mostly goes for the inwards pass.
As we can see, Petrović created an advantage over the direct guard in the half-space and goes for a wide run to the flank from where he’ll commonly provide assistish passes. The defensive line is not perceivable in this image, but the player is onside and waits for the right moment to run-out, while we can also see Nikolić dropping lower (no. 22) in order to drag midfielders higher.
Red Star’s build-up play also changed with the manpower switch in the midfield as they are now a more possession-oriented team, although that claim is now only based on the matches against weaker opponents they have in the Serbian Super Liga. One way or another, the “new wave“ midfield enabled them to play more through the ground and to rely less on their defensive block, but still keeping the good work in the second-ball segment.
Their possession play is based on the midfield rotations, with a clear pattern of midfield line circulation. The main idea for Serbs is to occupy inner corridors and set their play through the half-spaces, with Petrović and Nikolić playing the key parts positioning in those areas after their initial setup goes into the first transformation.
We have mentioned earlier in the analysis how the roles of the two are different in the same areas and here we can see their regular setup against the teams that tend to defend against them in the low block. Nikolić is often the one that finds his track in those restricted zones, from where he is the main supplier to both Petrović and attackers.
The situation changes when the opposition doesn’t sit that low on the pitch while off the ball, and that leads Red Star into the second tactics transformation, once again directed by the youngster duo. The rotation that takes place in those settings is seen as the line-switching of their midfield players as the two defensive midfielders move higher out of initial setup (shown in the first picture in the analysis), while the attacking midfielder drops lower in order to become a deep-lying playmaker.
This is the pattern they use most commonly in the build-up phase of the pitch, mostly because of Nikolić’s tendency to get involved in all the action around the field. He’s the guy who likes to be in control and wants to take responsibility but also has a good penetrating pass which makes him useful in those situations. On the other hand, this setup allows Petrović to play a little bit higher and wider in cooperation with the winger and to come to his “favourite” zone easier while not that guarded as he is when he’s in the more central position.
In the picture above, it is clearly shown how Nikolić’s motion triggers Petrović to go deeper and wider. The attacking midfielder gets the ball in a good situation to open up the progressive attack, while the rotational movements of both of them confuse the defence and leave both of the midfielders free to get the ball. Petrović then is a great forwarding option both with regular or through-pass and Red Star’s game thrives due to quite simple manoeuvres.
Midfield cooperation in possession
Two young players brought the sunlight to the variety of midfield options for Red and Whites and supplied them with different weapons in the offence due to their diverse skillsets. We have pointed out clearly that Nikolić is the one who pulls the creative strings of his team and Petrović is the one who tries to exploit wounds in the opposing team’s structure with his runs and sense for space, finally getting time and again in good goal-threatening positions.
The youngsters communicate pretty well and they know how to make the best of their possibilities keeping, relying on their strengths and covering weaknesses so the number 22 mostly enters the gaps between the midfield and defensive line of the rivals attracting defenders’ attention to himself, which commonly opens room for his mentioned teammate to run in and get the ball in dangerous zone.
As we can see, Petrović senses the space at the edge of the box and utilizes Nikolić’s well-timed pass after he’s made the surplus situation for his side by dragging players to guard him. The box-to-boxer of Red Star often goes with shots from distance out of those situations and that are some of the brightest moments for their side because of his powerful shot.
Although we said that Petrović’s passing game isn’t his main weapon, he is arguably good in that segment and knows how to break the lines of the opponent’s defensive structure, but doesn’t do it that often. If the situation opens up for him to get the ball with no guards around him, he loosens up a bit and gets more creative, with the final intention of going forward and being included in the action-finishing.
Njegoš positions himself as shown above from time to time and mostly plays a one or two-touch game in those setups. His main idea is to get the ball to his higher teammates – usually Nikolić – and to continue his motion towards the final third where he expects a return-ball, or just goes as a help provider. He goes around the opponent who comes to attack him, like it is pointed out, and pulls up great supportive runs from those settings.
The cooperation of the two happens mostly in the areas similar to the one in the picture, and they try to break the opponents through the central corridor with direct forward passes. In those scenarios, Petrović is commonly the one who sends line-breaking passes and Nikolić positions himself higher and tries to enable forward play with his fast turns, due to his good ball control and quick feet, or to play a fast pass that will allow their action to continue.
In the image, Njegoš finds Nikolić in a position in which he has a difficult possible 3v1 matchup, but trusts his teammate because he knows his skills. Nikolić does a fast turn which leads him into the open position between the lines and thrives Red Star’s progressive play. The two of them brought a lot of surprise factors to Stanković’s tactics and made it possible for the team to sometimes rely on individual skills of players, and not only on tactical patterns.
After changing the manager, Red Star went through the biggest identity switch when it comes to defensive action. Under Milojević, they felt comfortably defending in the low block and relying on fast transitions as their main weapons, especially in international games. But, today it seems that they’ve changed the approach and went to defending in a central block with a tendency to go higher, in the structure in which midfield duo plays a huge role.
In those setups, Nikolić plays as an “opposition progress director”, who channels the player with the ball to go into well-organised traps set up by the lower teammates and himself. He mostly calls the centre-back to enter the higher zone with the ball at his feet, by closing him the potential wide-option and letting him feel comfortable in the first few steps, after which he covers him from behind, while Petrović and other midfielder do the “dirty job” of tackling.
Here we can see how Nikolić’s motions close down the possible flank progress for the opposition and force defenders to enter the trap zone where the other two midfielders are waiting, prepared to outnumber technically weaker opponents. These scenarios habitually happen in the central areas of the pitch because Red Star’s playmaker usually operates in those corridors. However, he often creates defensive surpluses with his teammates on the flanks by coming closer and doing pretty much the same motions to stop the backward play.
Nikolić from time to time creates 3v1 situations together with winger and Petrović in the shown areas of the pitch, basically caging the player with the ball and leaving him with no options. Petrović’s motions are of great importance in these positions as he provides the trio with necessary help while still keeping an eye on the player who tries to run behind him.
Also, in the opening stages of opposition’s attacks, oftentimes happens that the two of them guard the “first-pass” of the opposing team by closing down the passing lanes towards the defensive midfielders who will enable forward play.
In the image above we see a pattern of their defending in those scenarios. Nikolić goes with low-level pressure on the player with the ball closing his first progress option with his shadow and forcing him to turn to the central areas for his next pass, whilst Petrović goes aggressively in high-speed pressure towards the other midfielder leaving him no room in the short amount of time after he went for pressing.
Those movements are well-planned and the two youngsters repeat them frequently closing down the potential progress for opponents. Their inclusion in out-of-possession play is different because Nikolić is more of a “hook thrower” for a player with the ball as he forces him to go into the traps, while Petrović is the muscles due to his physical abilities, well-timed tackles and aggressiveness.
Dejan Stanković brought new ideas to Serbian Marakana and set his tactics in order to profit from the youngsters. That made a huge room for the inspiring duo of Veljko Nikolić and Njegoš Petrović to show all they got and get the action they needed for a long time. On such short notice, they’ve shown how good they are and, more importantly, how good they could become, pointing out that Red Star has two possibly very lucrative gems in them.
They fit each other because of their different skillsets and complement each other’s flaws, which makes them interesting to analyse. With the add-on of one responsible defensive midfielder, their biggest strengths would become even clearer and they will thrive, which will possibly lead Red Star to become one of the most exciting teams to watch in this part of Europe.
If they continue their development in the same way they started it, the two midfielders could easily become the next big transfers coming out from the academy that created Luka Jović and Marko Grujić, and also they could be the ones to hold Serbia’s national team midfield for the years to come.