Nikola Vlasic is Everton’s forgotten man, however this summer he has all the tools to prove such labels are foolish and become Croatia’s creative weapon.
Euro 2020 will mark a changing of the guard for what has been a ‘golden generation’ of Croatian football.
Coach Zlatko Dalic has received serious backing from the federation after the spectacular run to the 2018 World Cup Final. A run in which Dalic utilised the strongest aspects of his squad and played to their strengths.
The manager came in at a time where the national team were struggling to find an effective system to get all their stars on the pitch at once. Dalic followed the old cliché of first making his side hard to beat. Reverting back to a more rigid 4-3-3, Croatia set up with a deeply experienced spine. Veterans Lovren and Vida at centre half and midfield three of Brozovic, Modric and Rakitic.
This system proved to be an inspired choice with the team pulling off one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of international tournaments. However, the task for Dalic ahead of Euro 2020 is arguably more difficult. With new found expectations placed on his team and pressure to blend the new generation with experience. One man typifies this shift more than anyone else, Croatia’s brightest young player tasked with the unenviable job of replacing Ivan Rakitic. That man is Nikola Vlasic.
The Early Years
Vlasic had a physicality beyond his years from an early age, to the extent that he was deemed ready to make his debut for Croatian side Hajduk Split at just 16. 16 years and nine months to be precise, and Vlasic scored away in Dundalk in a European Qualifier.
This would spark young Vlasic’s career to life. Over the next three years he would become a vital part of competitive Hajduk side who caused the usually completely dominant Dinamo Zagreb a few problems as well as partaking in European competition.
Vlasic even had the chance of captaining his club when club captain Lovre Kalinic was given an extra holiday after the 2016 Euros. The trust in the young attacking midfielder from so early on in his career came largely from his style of play at the time. Playing in a deeper role, he had the unique ability to transition the play from deep, to the final third with relative ease. Vlasic would take responsibility by receiving the ball deep in his own half, then either threading passes through to the attackers, bypassing the rest of the midfield or a skill which has become widely associated with Croat midfielders in the last decade; the dribble.
Modric and Kovacic stand out as two clear examples. The ability for a deeper central midfield to draw in the press from the opposition before completely opening up the pitch by weaving past their man has become a massive asset in the modern game. Vlasic was, and still is, a master of this. Like his national counterparts he has the ability and the confidence to take opposition on even in his own third.
The technical ability that was shown at his time in Hajduk Split was combined with excellent natural fitness. In fairness, Vlasic has no excuse not to be able to get around the pitch. His father Josko was a decathlete whilst his sister Blanka is a former famous high jumper.
After impressing in the Croatian first division, Vlasic earned what should have been a dream move. A £9 million to Premier League Everton. Fast forward one-year and Vlasic had played his last game for the Merseyside club and was loaned out to Russia with CSKA Moscow in what would become a permanent move. It didn’t work out for a number of reasons. There is no doubt amongst the Everton faithful that his performances weren’t up to scratch but there were also factors out of the players control that played a role in his premature exit.
Vlasic was signed in a summer of chaos with Ronald Koeman in charge at Everton. The Dutchman completely overloaded the attacking midfield position to the extent that somebody was always going to be sacrificed. Wayne Rooney returned on a free transfer, now playing a deeper role behind the striker. Gylfi Sigurdsson signed for a huge £44 million fee after a successful spell with Swansea. Proven talented attacker Davy Klassen came in from Ajax also for a large fee.
The result was predictably that Vlasic got very little game time. As Everton struggled for form, Koeman looked to proven Premier League experience. With the young Croatian struggling to get up to speed with the Premier League he became easier and easier for the manager to ignore.
Vlasic showed glimpses of what he was all about in brief cameos and Europa League ties on Thursday nights. Every time a moment that seemed like a potential turning point turned up, he was dropped the next week and it was back to square one. It was there where he excelled against Cypriot champions Apollon Limassol. Trademark runs from deep, good ball carrying and a decent goal on the day impressed the Everton home support. The fact they didn’t end up beating their ten man opposition should have been a warning.
Koeman was eventually sacked and replaced by Marco Silva, with a whole host of failed transfers being moved out either on a permanent basis or on loan. Sandro Ramirez, Henry Onyekuru, Davy Klassen and amongst them, Nikola Vlasic.
Nikola Vlasic has since enjoyed a resurgent three seasons in Russia. In this time he has looked more like the player he was expected to become in his Hajduk days. After impressing on loan in the 18/19 season, Vlasic had done enough to be rewarded with a £14 million transfer fee.
The 18/19 season was the most important year of the young Croatian’s career to date. Five goals and five assists in 25 league games was the first time Vlasic had shown a serious level of consistency over the course of a full campaign. Despite the solid league performances, it was in the Champions League where Vlasic proved he had the class to do it at the top level.
In a miserable attempt to escape the Champions League group stage CSKA would end up finishing last, behind a much less fancied Viktoria Plzen side. However three goals and two assists in his first six CL appearances impressed the CSKA faithful. They now had no doubt they were getting a player who would soon prove to be a level above the Russian Premier Liga.
This season (20/21), Vlasic fizzled out a bit prematurely before the end of the season. Perhaps with European football out of reach for CSKA with time to spare, the midfielder had one eye on the Euros. Either way new manager Ivica Olic, who arrived in March, was unable to get the best out of his Croatian counterpart. Even with a bit of late slacking, all the average fan has to do is have a look at a Nikola Vlasic 20/21 highlights reel on YouTube to see just how fantastic a player this man has become.
Strong, agile with a devastating impact in the final third. The composure Vlasic possesses in front of goal, which tends to be something all too rare in attacking midfielders, is a massive standout trait. His two goals in the UEFA Nations League in October showcase this ability perfectly, scoring two goals in two games against two very strong sides. Firstly a coolly tucked away finish against Sweden from the edge of the box, nestling before the keeper move. Secondly, a spectacular outside of boot effort against World Champions France. Once again fizzed in before the keeper could move.
David Sansun from Russian Football News had this to say on Vlasic’s time in Russia:
‘Nikola Vlasic is undoubtedly in the top 5 best players in Russia right now. His form over the last two years has been fantastic, the last couple of months aside. He is a player who can win games all by himself with individual moments of magic.
We’ve been lucky to have him in the RPL and we all knew he’d probably be off this summer given his undeniable talent.’
So the key question after all of his progression in the last four seasons; “is the Euro 2020 tournament coming too early for Vlasic?” The answer is a resounding no.
While it is definitely not now or never for the 23 year old, it is an absolutely golden opportunity. Croatia have an impressive conveyor belt of talented youngsters, so to be heading into a major tournament with the prized number ten position all to himself, with Croatia’s greatest ever player behind him in Modric, and alongside a Serie A title winner in Brozovic, is a chance Vlasic has to grab.
The pressure is certainly on. But Vlasic hasn’t found himself in this position by accident and he undoubtedly has the tools to deliver. He has proven to be player who can often perform in ‘bursts’, something that could hugely play into his favour. We have seen plenty of international tournaments in recent years with examples of players hitting a purple patch at the right time. Denis Cheryshev at Russia 2018 is one that springs to mind.
Also playing into the Croatian’s hands is the track record that shows when Vlasic plays well, he scores or assists. Final product is his game. He is not defined by being neat and tidy and ticking things over. Nikola Vlasic is full throttle in attacking areas, making things happen by demand.
Riding high off their phenomenal 2018 performance, Croatia will be expecting to get out of the group stage and cause problems for anyone they meet in the knockouts. Pressure rests on the shoulders of Nikola Vlasic. A man chewed up and spat out by the Premier League, will want to prove that he is capable against the best players in the world. What better stage to do it on?