Another Soucek: Is Rijeka’s Bosnian powerhouse ready for a bigger stage?
Stjepan Lončar is Bosnian central midfielder who plays for HNK Rijeka. This scout report will contain tactical analysis on Lončar attributes and his playing style. Lončar has collected eight caps for Bosnian national team.
Lončar performed well in this year’s group stage of Europa League in a tough group playing against Serie A side Napoli, La Liga sensation Real Sociedad and AZ Alkmaar. He started all six matches and was subbed off only once. Lončar managed to score once against Real Sociedad and assisted once in each game against AZ Alkmaar. His performances haven’t gone unnoticed especially in Spain with rumours that Rijeka received few enquiries about energetic box to box midfielder. Further in the analysis, we will try to make a detailed look at his qualities and why he caught the eye of clubs in bigger leagues.
Stjepan Lončar is 24-year-old who plays as a central midfielder. Transfermarkt values him at 2.5 million euros. Lončar is listed 187 cm and he is predominantly left-footed. Rijeka coach Rožman mostly uses different variances of 3-5-2 and Lončar fits mostly as left central midfielder in that formation. Lončar is crucial for Rijeka tactics because of his impressive physical qualities which allow him to work a lot for his team, but also always be ready to lead counter-attack with his vertical runs.
In the image above we can see how Lončar looks compared to the other midfielders in 1.HNL who played at least 270 minutes. We can see on his heatmap how he occupies a lot of the left half-space and that he often drifts wide. Lončar is the best in progressive runs and he is making a lot of penetrative runs through the middle especially in transition. He is also best in deep completions which just shows his creative side in the final third. That leads to a lot of shot assists and xA where he is one of the better midfielders in the league. His height allows him to win 52% of aerial duels and he is good in defensive duels winning 58.44% of those. After a quick overview of his profile and looking at his qualities from a data perspective, in the next sections we will make a detailed analysis of his playing style and his strengths.
Thriving in transitions as ball carrier
As the title of this section says, Lončar thrives in transitions especially as the ball carrier because his penetrative runs create chaos on the opposition half. He is not the most successful dribbler in tight spaces, but when there is space in front of him he is very dangerous. The example below will show us one situation from Europa League match against Real Sociedad.
Rijeka won possession in the middle third and Lončar immediately started carrying the ball towards the opponents goal. His run instantly leaves behind two players and he leads situation 4v3, but still has enough space in front of him because the defender closest to him can’t engage in a duel because of the two players running down the flank. After getting in the final third close to the penalty area he passes wide towards his teammate on the left. This type of situation happens often in Rijeka matches and most of the time Lončar is the player who leads the counter-attack through the middle. In the next example, we will show another situation where Lončar carries the ball in the sequence with more space in front of him.
Lončar dribbled past one player and has a lot of space in front of him which enables him to continue a destructive vertical run. He is supported by two teammates who are on his left and right. Rijeka tends to get into these situations in matches, they are always ready to start a counter-attack and at least two players support the ball carrier in the counter-attacks like in this situation. In the second part of this action, we can see Lončar decision.
We can see that he won a lot of space with his run and waited for the right timing to pass the ball. It was vital to pass the ball towards his teammate to the left, but only after the last defender stopped running down which prevented him from closing down the Lončar teammate on the left after he received the ball. Lončar made the right decisions through the whole counter-attack and in the end his pass led to the clear cut chance for his teammate.
As we saw through this section Lončar can hurt the opponents with his runs through the middle, but he also sometimes runs down the left flank with the ball because he often gets into wide positions to receive the ball. Lončar is fast for a central midfielder which helps him a lot in transitions. However his creation is not only based on transitions, in the next section, we will take a look into his creative side on and off the ball.
Lončar is not the most technically gifted player, but he has a good understanding of the game and moves well off the ball. He has vision and often tries to make risky passes which would break the opponents defence. In the example below, we will see the situation from the match against AZ Alkmaar where Lončar catches the defence off guard with his run.
Štefulj(#24) receives the ball from the centre of the pitch and it triggers Lončar to accelerate into the open space created by the opponent full-back who decided to press Štefulj who is positioned wide. Štefulj decides to play the one-touch pass to Lončar behind full-back. Lončar finds himself in a very promising situation inside the penalty area and has enough concentration at such a late phase of the game to play right pass through the 6-yard box to his teammate who arrives on far post to score a late winner. Timing of Lončar run was the most important part because the defence was unprepared for his run into the penalty area and it allowed him enough time on the ball to make a right decision. In the next two examples, we will see how Lončar gets into crossing positions because he is a frequent crosser.
In this particular situation a long pass was played from right side to left wing-back Štefulj who headed the ball to Lončar who was positioned in the left half-space. Lončar made a run which separated him from opponents players which created enough space for him to cross the ball into the penalty area. This is something that can be seen often in Manchester City matches when De Bruyne crosses from a similar position but from the right side. Because defenders are focused on receivers of the long pass they close space closer to their goal allowing the midfielder to receive the back pass unguarded. However it is not the only situation where Lončar attempts crosses because he likes to run down the flank acting as winger before crossing into the penalty area, like in the situation below.
If we talk about Lončar passing we saw on the dashboard that his passing accuracy is 81.25%. It would probably be higher if he didn’t try risky passes frequently. Rijeka plays without a primary playmaker and all three central midfielders are all-around players who can play in both directions and cover a lot of space. In that environment, Lončar often takes responsibility to create chances and example below shows his pass over the defence for Kulenović(#99).
Lončar is surrounded by three opposition players and under pressure. He doesn’t have a lot of options in advanced positions, but he saw that Kulenović is prepared to run into the space behind the opponent centre-backs. Given that defence is on the edge of the penalty area this pass is very difficult to perform, but Lončar manages to play a perfect pass to Kulenović putting him into 1v1 situation. In the example below we can see his defence-breaking ground pass which put his teammate in 1v1 goal scoring chance.
We can see that in this situation the opponent has nine players in his own third trying to tighten the central area. However, Lončar takes a very risky pass past three opponent players into the feet of his teammate on the edge of the penalty area. His body posture gave signal that he would pass the ball wide, but it was just a fake signal before attempting a ground penetrative pass through the middle. What is great about this sequence is that Lončar is not hesitating to take responsibility in the late stage of the match in an attempt to win the match.
His self-confidence is a very important part of his playing style because he always plays with the mindset that he will succeed with his actions. However, if he doesn’t succeed he is trying to regain possession quickly and the next section will be focused on his defensive actions.
We mentioned Lončar offensive contribution in the previous sections and in this section, we will focus on his defensive contribution. We saw on his data profile that he is strong in defensive duels and aerial duels, but his greatest abilities defensively are his covering and recovery runs. The example below will show us the situation from the match against Šibenik.
In this situation, Šibenik regained possession after Rijeka crossed from the left side. The moment the Šibenik player turned with the ball Lončar started accelerating to cover the space on the left side because the left wing-back was left behind after his cross. This run by Lončar prevented the opponent to start a counter-attack and allowed the rest of the team to fill the central area quickly. This type of runs slow down opponent attacks and it is an important part of Rijeka philosophy to have central midfielders who are able to cover offensive wing-backs when needed. Lončar reading of the game and pace are playing a big part in this type of actions. The example below will show us his tendency to cover space and help wing-back.
In this situation the wing-back is facing 1v1 situation on wide space with the opponent winger. Lončar was pressing higher up the pitch a few moments before and he made a run to help wing-back. What he does well in this situation is not going directly to help his teammate, but rather chooses to cover space closer to the goal. That decision should push the opponent to dribble wide, but in this situation the winger decides to cut inside and Lončar is there to close him down and to dispossess him. Lončar is very good at defending on wider positions and he provides defensive support to teammates playing on wide positions. The example below will show us Lončar anticipation and fast reaction to intercept the pass.
Rijeka often tries pressing higher up the pitch and it demands high physical level and concentration being in the right place to give the team a better chance to have a successful press. In this situation opponent attempts pass towards the full-back. Lončar position gives enough space for the opponent to think that he can make a successful pass, but the moment he hits the ball Lončar accelerates to intercept the pass. He makes traps for the opponents who are not aware of his physical capabilities and reading of the game. Lončar is a very important part of Rijeka’s high pressing tactics.
The image above shows us Lončar aggression. Opposition player demands the ball and makes a run into the open space, but Lončar is marking him closely waiting for a pass to try regaining possession. After the opposition full-back attempts a pass towards his teammate, Lončar reads the trajectory of the ball and uses his strength and acceleration to get in front of the receiver. Lončar outmuscles the opponent and regains the possession. He can be sometimes too aggressive when pressing high which sometimes leads to mistimed tackles, but in his own half he rarely endangers his team. If he didn’t mark a tight receiver in this situation, the opponent would find himself in a very good situation in the final third.
In this section, we saw Lončar defensive capabilities and it is clear that his work rate and anticipation are crucial for his team defensively because he covers a lot of ground and he is covering the right spaces.
This analysis gave us the information on Lončar abilities and how he contributes to his team. He is creating chances for his team and even though he is not technically the most gifted player he is still able to contribute a lot in both counter-attacks or positional attacks. He thrives in transition and he can play on higher-level football just based on his physical qualities, but of course he can offer a lot more. Lončar shows promising signs that he could find himself more often on the scoresheet and if he could bring this part of his game to a higher level it would be a great asset to his skillset. We saw how Soucek joined from Czech Fortuna Liga and made an immediate impact for West Ham in the Premier League and maybe Lončar could be able to make a similar impact if he gets in better league. Our prediction is that he will make a move in summer transfer window into the bigger league.