In Enis Bardhi North Macedonia have a midfield jewel. A dynamo who will be crucial in the nation’s historic appearance at the Euros this summer.
Surrounded by brick fences, in the shadows of Újpest’s Szusza Ferenc Stadium, Enis Bardhi was putting on a show.
On the emerald green turf, he weaved and slalomed past his hapless opponents with grit and determination.
The 19 year old North Macedonian was a man on a mission.
In the summer of 2014, Bardhi had just left Swedish fourth division side Prespa Birlik. He spent trials in Germany and other parts of Europe.
But time was ticking. It was August, the football calendar was about to begin.
Having secured a trial with Hungarian outfit Újpest, this was a desperate last hurrah to get himself a contract.
For Újpest boss Nebojsa Vignjević it did not take long to make a verdict.
‘Immediately after the training session, I called up the owner, and I told him: “We must sign this guy right now,” Vignjevic recalls to First Time Finish.
‘I was surprised they (Swedish clubs) had given up on him. You could tell he was a very good player, his technique and the way he shot the ball was exceptional.’
Becoming a hero
Standing at just 1.72 metres, the diminutive midfielder blessed with an enormous ‘heart’ on the pitch quickly endeared himself to supporters in Budapest’s outer district.
A bustling player, with quick feet his former coach Nebojsa was especially impressed by Bardhi’s shooting range.
‘What makes him really special is his shooting,’ Nebojsa explains. ‘From long distance or free kicks he can score more often and that’s something that makes him stand out from the rest I think.
He practised a lot, but he was born with this skill and so it was easy to improve.’
At Újpest Bardhi often marvelled the crowd with his long-range strikes, and has equally lit up La Liga in recent years scoring against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid for Levante.
In his club career so far Bardhi has scored 10 direct goals from free-kicks for Levante and Újpest out of his 43 in total.
A driven mentality
With little professional football experience, when Bardhi first arrived in Budapest, there was a lot to learn too.
‘Tactically we had to teach him,’ Nebojsa says. ‘But he’s a very intelligent guy. He’s the type of guy who wants to learn and get better every day. He understands everything that you ask of him and why you are getting him to do certain things.
It was easy to work with a guy like that and it was easy for him to improve too.’
Physically, Enis Bardhi had to develop a lot too. Having come from a largely amateur background the Macedonian had to adjust to the new intensity of his professional environment.
Sometimes he would struggle with little niggles and injuries, but it would never deter him from his mission.
‘In his second year he was out for a while. He had a problem with his knees. In that time he worked a lot in the gym and he came back a lot stronger,’ Nebojsa recalls.
The result of Bardhi’s hard-work can still be seen today. When he first arrived in Hungary he was a little frail. Sometimes bigger opponents would be able shrug him off the ball.
But now Bardhi has grown into a man with wide shoulders, bulging thigh and a strong lower-body which has enabled him to stand his ground against physically challenging opponents.
‘He’s the type of guy I would like to manage in every team. He’s very talented. Privately he’s a very good guy everybody likes him and on the pitch he gives you his best,’ Nebojsa explains passionately.
Check out our shop on Etsy:
Making the step-up
From playing in Sweden’s fourth tier back in 2014, Enis Bardhi went to scoring against Barcelona in La Liga in the space of just four years.
‘I remember what he told me when he left,’ Nebojsa recalls. ‘We had a much better offer for him from Russia. It was much better money for us and him. But he told me one sentence that I would never forget and I think that’s why he made his career. He told me: “Coach don’t you want to see your player playing against Barcelona and Real Madrid one day?”
‘That was his dream. When he went to Levante nobody knew whether he would play. The Spanish league was a big step-up but he had a lot of confidence in himself that he would be successful there.’
In the end almost four years and over 100 appearances latter, Enis Bardhi has proved the doubters wrong. He has established himself as the linchpin of a Levante side who drift from mid-table to relegation battlers in La Liga year after year.
Last season the Macedonian even earned himself interest from the likes of Arsenal and purportedly Bundesliga and Serie A clubs.
In 2020/21 Bardhi has struggled with injuries but has still performed amicable when it comes to certain metrics. His 0.17 npxG puts him in the 96th percentile vs midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues. Meanwhile his 0.76 shots on target per 90 is in the 98th percentile via FBREF.
His 1.66 passes into the penalty area per 90 is in the 94th percentile, meanwhile his 0.62 crosses into the penalty area are in the 98th. And his 2.21 players dribbled past per 90 is also in the 98th percentile.
He may only have 2 goal and 2 assists in 18 starts for Levante this season, having missed 18 games due to a muscle injury, but it’s clear his performances do not reflect the quality he continues to produce.
Meanwhile, on the international front, Enis Bardhi has thrived for North Macedonia.
In his first three games for Macedonia in 2021, Bardhi has registered three assists and scored one goal against Romania, Germany and Liechtenstein.
Playing usually as a CM in a midfield three under Igor Angelowski’s 5-3-2 formation, Bardhi has been given the freedom to unlock defences averaging 4.24 passes per 90 into the penalty area with a 66.7% success rate according to Wyscout and currently ranks the 4th highest for expected assists per 90 with 1.39 in the World Cup Qualifying section.
It was Bardhi, excellent control and cleverly weighted pass inside Germany’s penalty area which gave North Macedonia a remarkable victory over the European giants.
Nebojsa is not surprised by Bardhi’s performances, and he believes playing centrally will get the best out of his former player.
‘I think his best position is in the middle. He’s a typical midfield player. He can bring a lot. He’s very disciplined and he reads the game very well.
But he can also play in the wing. I think because of his shooting technique his best position is in the middle.’
North Macedonia’s historic first appearance in a major tournament has already surprised many. Their group of Austria, Netherlands and Ukraine looks like a difficult task at first glance.
But the Macedonians have already proven they are no pushovers.
In Goran Pandev they have a true poacher and the likes of Trajkowski and Alioski can be dangerous from set-pieces too.
Enis Bardhi will be crucial in the country’s success.
Defensively, his work-rate and pressing will be important to thwart opponents and create counter-attacking opportunities.
Offensively he will be vital both as a free-kick specialist and as a deep-lying playmaker. With Macedonia unlikely to dominate against their opponents, set-pieces and decisive moments could provide them rare opportunities to capitalise on.
And there are not many players in world football who you would rather have lining up behind the ball than Enis Bardhi.
Enjoyed this article? If you wish to support the work we do, you can make a donation.