Filip Benkovic: Celtic’s on-loan defensive star
During the summer, Filip Benkovic was attracting interest from the likes of Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. The Croatian defender opted for a move to Leicester City, before immediately joining Celtic on a season-long loan. Still just 21, he is seen as one of the most promising central defenders in European football. In this player analysis, we take a look at the attributes and statistics that make him stand out as an elite prospect.
Story so far
Having progressed through the youth ranks at Dinamo Zagreb, Benkovic made his professional debut at the age of 18. He would go on to make 88 appearances for the club. On the international stage, he has represented Croatia at every level from under-17 to under-21. Perhaps surprisingly, he has yet to play for the senior team, but that will likely change before the end of the season.
Beating competition from a host of top clubs, Leicester City signed the 6″4′ defender for a reported £13 million in August 2018. Just a few weeks later, Benkovic demanded a loan move in order to guarantee regular opportunities.
“I’m young, I need the minutes on the park and the manager agreed with me. Going to Celtic gives me a year to adapt to British football.”
The early signs are positive in Glasgow and Celtic fans appear to have warmed to him already. He continues to be an influential player in their title fight with Rangers.
Benkovic favours a proactive approach to defending. He’s consistently aggressive in recovering possession for his side and regularly steps out of the back line to intercept passes before they get to the opponent’s strikers.
He tends to go to ground a lot with his tackles, a trait that might be evened out as he matures. During his 14 games so far in Scotland, he has recovered possession 13.32 times per game. The youngster also completes an average of 5.09 interceptions.
The images below highlight his aggressive style of defending, with an opponent wide player looking to deliver from inside Zagreb’s penalty area. Instead of simply preparing to defend the cross, Benkovic moves out to deal with the source of the problem.
After he gets out to the defender, he doesn’t look to stall or block. He makes the challenge and recovers possession for his team. The imposing defender angles his approach to block off the crossing lane while looking to time his tackle. In this play, Benkovic slides in and takes the ball, allowing his teammates to counter.
He prefers to be proactive and aggressive, and backs his ability to read the game and dispossess the opponents. Although positivity is one of the most impressive aspects of his profile, his tendency to dive into challenges and go to ground will likely be tempered as he gains experience.
An ever-increasingly desired trait in modern defenders, his range of passing is exceptional. He can break lines vertically with direct passes to the striker, or play through gaps to find teammates between the lines.
His diagonal passes are even more effective, however. Benkovic is consistently able to bypass multiple defensive lines with cross-field balls to the far-sided winger. The images below highlight one such occasion.
After picking up possession on the first line of the attack, he looks up and sees the run of a teammate on the far side. Confident in his passing abilities, he plays a diagonal ball over the top of the opponent’s defence.
The timing of the pass allows the receiver to come onto the ball facing forward. He also has the immediate opportunity to play across the face of goal for the third man in the sequence to score. The 21-year-old has made on average 55.39 passes per game for the Bhoys this term, with a completion rate of 91.7%. The ambitious nature of his passing makes this a highly impressive stat. His passes to the final third average stands at 5.39, with the accuracy only dropping to 77%. He plays just 2.45 back-passes per game.
In addition to his passing range, Benkovic is also competent at carrying the ball into midfield and playing out under more pressurised circumstances. He can be considered a ball-playing defender and has been compared to former Celtic man Virgil van Dijk.
Both Zagreb and Celtic generally operate with a high defensive line and so Benkovic is regularly required to defend a lot of space behind him. His strength, pace, and intelligence allow him to achieve this without many issues.
The images below highlight his ability to make up ground in behind before timing his challenge. After the opposition play a long ball over the top, Benkovic has to chase back and get alongside the attacker.
These types of actions are a prominent feature of the young defender’s game, making comparisons with Van Dijk all the more understandable. His stature also allows him to contribute on the goalscoring front, netting twice already during the current campaign. In his last year with Zagreb, he scored four times. Overall, he makes significant contributions offensively and defensively, making him a comprehensive talent.
The only noteworthy flaw to his game is an aspect of his decision making. He sometimes fails to choose the appropriate option between dropping off or stepping out, and similarly between stalling or tackling. Should he develop his ability to recognise when to be aggressive and when to be conservative, he has all the tools to become a world class centre-back.
An international debut is expected soon for Filip Benkovic, while his return to Leicester next season will be much anticipated. If he can continue to perform well for the rest of his loan spell, perhaps the Foxes will be less concerned by the prospect of losing Harry Maguire. In any case, the future looks bright for Croatia’s young defender.
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