After an impressive journey to the World Cup final in Russia, followed by taking Euro 2020 semi-finalists Spain the distance in the round of 16, Croatia are nearing the end of a loosely dubbed ‘golden generation’ of international football.
This of course, was fuelled by the cohort of talent to have come through during this time, with the midfield trifecta of Brozovic, Kovacic and 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric leading the nation’s charge.
But, as soon as a national team begins to take shape, so too does their regression. A new generation is ready to break through, and the Croatians will be hoping their future stars are enough to keep their position in the top 15 ranked countries in the world (a dream for all aspiring footballers, I’m sure).
The young Croatians knocking on the door certainly have fans excited. Josko Gvardiol, the pick of the bunch, joined Jesse Marsch at RB Leipzig this season after starting at the Euros. Domagoj Bradaric helped Lille in pipping PSG to the Ligue 1 title last season, and Rennes’ Lovro Majer, whilst yet to live up to his early hype, is clearly gifted with extreme talent.
The player I’ve chosen to profile today is, barring unforeseen circumstances, destined to be Gvardiol’s partner at the back, and that is Hamburger SV’s Mario Vuskovic.
Born and raised in Split, the 19 year old rose through the Hadjuk Split academy teams before making his first team debut in 2019 against HNK Gorica, featuring in the final eight minutes of the match. Two weeks later, he came on against Dinamo Zagreb, taking his total first team minutes to NINE! (and people say Højbjerg gets overplayed).
Before this, Vuskovic made 17 appearances for Hadjuk Split’s reserve side in the second tier of Croatian football, scoring on his debut, as well as being a prominent feature in the U17 Croatian side at the age of 15.
The start of the 20/21 season is where Vuskovic really emerged, breaking into the first team and making 29 appearances for ‘The Bili’ under manager Igor Tudor (Sorry for replacing you on Football Manager, Igor, no hard feelings right?).
And on deadline day of the 2021 summer transfer window, Vuskovic made the move to 2. Bundesliga side Hamburger SV, on a two-year loan deal with an option to buy for the German club.
During his time in academy football, Vuskovic was typically played as a defensive midfielder, before being redeveloped into a right sided centre back as he broke into Split’s reserve team.
As shown above by his 20/21 heatmap, Vuskovic covers the right side of his half efficiently, pushing forward in possession to offer more use in progression when deployed in a back three. A huge benefit of playing three at the back is that one of the centre halves can vacate their position to offer help further up field or track an opposition runner, without having to worry about the space left behind them.
In a back four this isn’t a luxury you have, as venturing out of position will leave you terribly exposed (yes Mustafi I’m looking at you), but Vuskovic uses his other attributes to aid his team when deployed in a pair.
|Expansive passing range||Progressive carrying ability|
|Physicality and strength in duels||Choosing right ‘moments’ to defend aggressively|
|Set piece threat||Choice of pass, especially when high-risk|
The 19 year old’s most impressive trait is, without question, his passing. A common routine of Vuskovic’s is to take a touch that opens his body up and moves the ball into space, before scanning the field to find open teammates and attempting a pass down the line or across to the opposite winger. Vuskovic’s range of passing often leads to over the top switches of play, turning opposition backlines around and kickstarting forward moves. Ranking 13th for total progressive passes across the 20/21 HNL season and averaging 8.46 progressive passes per 90, the Split born defender racks up impressive numbers for a teenager.
For a 6’2 centre half, Vuskovic is very confident on the ball, with quick feet for his size and frame. In instances where he is being pressed, or recovering a poor pass, Vuskovic is quick to adjust himself away from the danger, where again, he’ll often use his expansive passing range to turn possession into something productive.
Averaging 51.54 passes per 90 last season and ranking fifth in the league for most passes altogether, Vuskovic is comfortable on the ball and unafraid to make things happen, a very promising attribute for the modern game.
The young Croatian, although predominantly right footed, avoids running into dead ends by using his ambipedal ability (this is apparently ambidextrous but for feet, my word of the day calendar is coming in handy at last). Used well with his sudden change of direction when under pressure, Vuskovic’s ability to quickly change direction, coupled with his comfort in receiving on his back foot or quickly shifting the ball onto his weaker side means he’s able to escape his marker and progress play up the pitch (or as shown below, find teammates in goal scoring opportunities).
Vuskovic is quick to danger and an aggressive defender, often vacating his backline, anticipating passes into the forward’s feet, and stepping in front to intercept a loose pass. I know some don’t like the analogy of Cats and Dogs as similes for centre backs, but think more German Shepard than a Tabby.
Vuskovic is certainly proactive, leaving his defensive line when necessary and making sure he’s always ahead of his attacker when danger comes in. In instances where he falls behind the attacker, Vuskovic will often use his tall frame to bully his opposite number, towering over them or shrugging them to the side.
Given his size and aggressive temperament when attacking aerial balls or knock downs, Vuskovic is a huge threat from attacking set-pieces — so much so that takers should actively look for him when delivering.
Okay I think I’ve finally gone through all his stren- wait a minute, did I mention his set piece ability?
With a scarily accurate free kick in his locker, as well as opting for placement rather than power on his penalties, Vuskovic adds goals from set pieces and provides yet another reason to like him (come on, who doesn’t like free kick taking defenders?).
Okay okay, I know the strengths just kept coming, but Vuskovic does have some concerns that need ironing out.
To start, the space he leaves behind could be exploited by higher level attackers. This, however, is definitely something that can be developed, starting by giving him a consistent run of games in a back four (Split varied last season with three and four back systems) and developing a greater concept of risk versus reward with his aggressive style – especially as opposition quality increases.
Despite being confident on the ball, and showing glimpses of it from time to time, Vuskovic carries the ball out of defence a lot less than you would expect from someone with his skillset, with the 19 year old only averaging 1.43 progressive runs per 90 last season, ranking him 77th in the league. Having a defender who can carry the ball out forces an opponent to commit to closing him down, opening space further forward for teammates to exploit.
I praised Vuskovic’s passing earlier on, and it really is laudable, but with his choice of often switching to the other winger, or at least trying to reach the attacking line, he can sometimes be over-ambitious and turnover possession when a simpler pass is more suitable. Picking the right moments to attempt difficult passes vs. when to play the simpler ball is an important balance to strike.
This ties into his tendency to play more high-risk progressive passes, which he did with great success last season (at an 80% success rate) — these types of passes are encouraged, and often kickstart forward moves, but it’s important that he learns to be selective in his decision-making when the quality around him improves.
On deadline day (and typically whilst I was writing this article) Vuskovic joined Hamburger SV on a two year loan with an option to buy.
For Split, this is an odd choice. To lose a starting defender for two years and the reported future fee to be so small is not what you’d call smart business.
For Vuskovic, however, the move looks promising. Hamburger will be aiming to push for promotion to the top flight once more, so a season in the second tier, a year in the top flight, and then a permanent move would be the ideal scenario for the young defender.
As long as he continues developing on a positive trajectory and continues to play regularly, Mario Vuskovic will be a mainstay of the new Croatian generation, and at club of good stature in a top five league. For now though, let’s go watch that free kick again.
Stats courtesy of Wyscout
Heatmap courtesy of SofaScore