Nikola Vlasic 2020 – scout report
Nikola Vlasic is Croatian offensive midfielder who plays for CSKA Moscow. This scout report will contain tactical analysis on Vlašić attributes and his playing style. CSKA Moscow often rotates 4-2-3-1 formation and variances of formations with three at the back. In both formations Vlašić plays as a “10”, however, he can play as an “8” as well.
He started playing senior football as a 16-year-old and was a key player for Hajduk Split till his transfer to Premier League side Everton in 2017 for a reported fee of 10.8 million euros. In Everton, they looked at him more as a winger and didn’t give him enough chance to play in his preferred central positions. After one season he was loaned to the current club where he impressed and they signed him permanently for a reported fee of 15.7 million euros. Vlašić comes from a famous sports family in Croatia, his dad Joško is athletics coach (former decathlete) and his sister Blanka is one of the best high-jumpers ever with multiple gold medals in big competitions. It wouldn’t be important to mention all of this if their dad Joško wasn’t coaching both of them which is the reason for their physical attributes. Further in the analysis, it will be clear how much Vlašić physical qualities give him the edge over the opponents.
Nikola Vlašić is 23-year-old who plays as attacking midfielder, but over the course of his career especially with Hajduk, he played all positions above defence. Over his career, he profiled as a player who can make a bigger impact while playing in central roles because it gives him the freedom to roam over the pitch finding open spaces to receive the ball from where he can hurt opponents. On his heatmap below, we can see that even though he played as LCM and AM he has activity all over the field, especially in half-space near the left side.
Physical attributes that Vlašić possesses separate him from the others. His individual work with his father who is professional as an athletic coach led him to develop all needed physical abilities for football players. Vlašić has a great amount of acceleration, agility, balance, strength and stamina. He didn’t have any big problems with muscle injuries which shows that his body is well-balanced. Since moving to CSKA Moscow, he attempts a lot of dribblings and shots showing his self-confidence is very high. He scored 12 goals and assisted five times in 30 appearances last season in Russian Premier League. In the next sections, we will make a detailed analysis of his playing style and his strengths.
Vlašić has a big impact on the scoreline for the team he is representing. We will compare him with the other players who play similar positions in the top five leagues to see how good he is in terms of goal contribution(goals per 90 and assists per 90) and expected goal contribution(xG per 90 + xA per 90). The used dataset is from all competitions in the last year with central/attacking midfielders who played a minimum of 900 minutes.
We could already assume that Muller, De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes are at the top because of their impressive record. What excites is that Vlašić has almost the same impact as the most expensive player this summer – Kai Havertz. Vlašić finds himself pretty high in both metrics with 0.61 goal contribution per 90 and 0.45 expected goal contribution per 90. What we need to check is how often Vlašić shoots and how many touches in the box he has per 90. With those stats, we will have more insight into his tendencies and the secret of his high goal contribution.
Now we have enough information to know why Vlašić is such a threat for opponents. Only Malinovsky has more shots than him, Ukrainian footballer is averaging 4.6 shots per 90 compared to Vlašić 3.67 per 90. He shoots more than Calhanoglu and Coutinho who are the players known for their tendency to shoot, especially from long range with intention to surprise the goalkeeper with their powerful shot. Not only is he one of the most frequent shooters between the midfielders, but he is also the 4th in the touches in the opponent’s penalty area per 90. David Silva, Muller and Ramsey are the only midfielders who have more touches in the box than Vlašić who averages 4.14 per 90. Now that we know that Vlašić is one of the most dangerous central/attacking midfielders in Europe, we will analyze his movements on the field that lead to his high-quality output.
In the image below we can see the situation which leads to most of Vlašić shots.
After the progression through the middle Vlašić runs towards the opponents’ goal before attempting the shot right outside of the penalty area. After he beats the first defender it is hard to prevent him from shooting because of his acceleration and quality to find enough space to shoot through the gaps between defenders.
The first image above shows us that Vlašić is positioned right outside the penalty area at the moment his teammate on the right-wing receives the ball. Four CSKA Moscow players are expecting the cross and moving closer to the goal. Movement by his teammates triggers Vlašić to make a smart run towards the central spot outside the penalty area from where he can endanger opponent. He positions his body to receive the ball on the right foot while using his strength to hold off his marker which leads to his turn on the left foot leading to a shot. He has a powerful shot with both feet making it harder for opponents to close him down when in position to shoot. He was raw talent when he started his professional career, but through years he polished his technique and using left foot which makes him a top player both physically and technically.
The image above displays space where Vlašić mostly arrives after playing wide through the pass. Vlašić made a slightly longer pass than he wanted, but he continued his run towards the penalty area. While three defenders are focused on the ball carrier, Vlašić arrives into the penalty area unobstructed and has enough time and space to shoot a cut-back pass from his teammate. Vlašić constantly moves towards the opponents’ goal with or without the ball is something that puts him in more chances than other players playing a similar position. The image below will show us one situation of his off the ball movement.
We can see in this situation the already mentioned tendency to move towards the goal by Vlašić. Striker dropped deeper which drew his marker out of the defensive line, Vlašić recognised free space left behind and used his pace to run into that space. If he gets the through ball he is in a good position to score or go 1v1 with his marker, however even if Modrić doesn’t decide to pass him his movement made a mess in the opponents’ defence leaving both Perišić(on left-wing) and Petković(striker) 1v1 against their markers on wide space.
The last image in this section will show us another off the ball movement catching the opponents’ off guard. We can see that Petković is moving towards the penalty area drawing his marker with him and the left-back is focused on the Croatian right-back who is high and wide. That leaves the big gap between left centre-back and left-back and because opponent midfielders are focused on Brozović(ball carrier) it allows Vlašić to run into the open space where Brozović can find him with the ground pass.
Progression and dribbling
One of the biggest reasons why Vlašić has a bigger impact on the central positions is his progressive ability. Once again we will compare him to the other top five leagues central/attacking midfielders to rate his penetration towards the opponent goal. The graph below will compare players based on their dribbles per 90 and progressive runs per 90.
Vlašić is only behind Papu Gomez, Luis Alberto, Felipe Anderson and De Paul in terms of progressive runs, he averages 4.06 per 90 while one of the Serie A finest players Papu Gomez averages 5.82 per 90. It is a clear indicator that Vlašić is one of the best progressors with the ball at his feet between central/attacking midfielders. He is high on the graph with dribbles as well, only seven players attempt more dribbles than Vlašić’s 6.15 attempts per 90. His dribbling success rate is 54.97% which can be improved in the future.
In the image above we can see how Vlašić can hurt opponents by penetrating through the middle. Vlašić saw enough space between two midfielders and using his acceleration he made a run through them while using his strength and balance to keep the ball. In the image below we can see how his run made the opponent centre-back to pop out from the line to try and win the ball. Vlašić makes the best decision by making a pass to Petković while continuing his run into space that opened by rushing centre-back. This is the right way to use his qualities, he penetrated through the middle but didn’t force further dribbling instead he found an open teammate and continued his run which opened the possibility to get the ball in open space from where he can score a goal.
Next image will show us how Vlašić finds his way out of tight spaces using his low centre of gravity and good ball control. Vlašić often positions himself laterally when receiving the ball to dictate from which side his marker will try to dispossess him. He tries to initiate contact and when the contact is made he makes a turn with the ball around the player.
The last example below will show us another situation where Vlašić escapes pressing by three players and makes progress towards the goal. After receiving the throw-in two players put pressure on Vlašić and he tries to run down the flank but a third player comes to close him as well. This is where Vlašić shows his spatial awareness and decides to cut inside leaving three players behind him.
We now have the idea of how Vlašić progresses with the ball and how he gets the edge over the opponents. Not only that he progresses often with the ball, he always continues his run which is why opponents can’t let him move unmarked because he can punish them easily. Another thing which can be seen by watching Vlašić is his hesitation move(just like in basketball). Vlašić using his low centre of gravity he can trick the opponent just to create an advantage to progress with the ball. As we already said he has spatial awareness and while sprinting he feels that the opponent behind him will catch him which he uses into his advantage. Just a few moments before the opponent catches up with him, he slows down his run and when the opponent tries stopping he suddenly pushes the ball further and uses his acceleration to leave him behind. It is always more effective against taller players who have problems with changes of direction and can’t cope with his agility.
Based on what we saw in the previous graphs we can conclude that Vlašić tends to shoot when has a chance, but what is important in his position is also to facilitate for his teammates. The graph below will compare Vlašić to the other midfielders based on deep completions per 90 and passes into the penalty area per 90.
Once again Vlašić is one the best in these metrics as well. He averages 4.14 passes into the penalty area per 90 and 2.59 deep completions per 90. Players who we mentioned before are above him, which gets us to the conclusion that he is getting close to those world-class central/attacking midfielders when it comes to offensive impact.
We will now take a look into some of the situations which enable Vlašić to have such a high-quality output in terms of passes in the dangerous areas.
In this situation above we can see how Vlašić is under pressure by three players in tight space. His teammate made first run towards him which dragged another player onto him, but then recognised that there was no space for him and stopped his run in order to turn in the other direction. Vlašić instantly sees open space for his teammate and makes a soft flick over the legs of defenders to put his teammate in the goalscoring opportunity. Vlašić once again proves how his close control and spatial awareness give him the advantage even under pressure when there is a small chance to make the right decision.
Another situation where Vlašić puts his teammate into the goalscoring opportunity. Vlašić while running with the ball is under the pressure of his marker who gets his arm on his shoulder in order to get an advantage in the duel. Vlašić has enough strength and balance to outpower his opponent and adjust his body to play a perfectly timed pass with his left foot. This sequence is important because it shows a really quality skill set by Vlašić, not only his physical abilities but also his technical ability as well because he is able to make the quality pass with both feet even when pressured.
The image above shows us the situation where Vlašić is shadowed by the opponent’s midfielder. To get open he makes false movement and gets in the middle to gain the advantage over his marker in the dangerous space to receive the ball.
Vlašić makes a first touch pass on the verge of the final third to his teammate who made a smart run between the full-back and centre-back. This shows that Vlašić possesses the vision and it could be used more by him. What he should do more is work on his decision-making, he often decides to shoot a few moments before shooting and even with a low chance of shot going through. What often happens is that when he is a step before shooting the gap opens in the opponents’ defence and his teammates often anticipate his slick pass into that gap. If he could sometimes change his decision in mid-action and chose to pass it could lead to more assists for him. However, he scores many goals and it would be harsh to tell him to decrease the number of shots.
This analysis gave us the information on Vlašić offensive abilities and also how he looks compared to the other midfielders playing at the highest level based on data. What can be concluded is that Vlašić outgrew Russian Premier League and given his great performances for both club and country it is a matter of time till a bigger club makes a move for him. We didn’t do the analysis on his defensive qualities but given his work rate, intensity and stamina he can adapt to any defensive tactics. It would be interesting to see if he gets another chance to play in the Premier League after not getting enough chances at Everton.