Veljko Birmančević is a name that could soon be on the lips of Champions League followers. The Serbian has come a long way on his journey to the top.
Veljko Birmančević had had enough. After almost a decade at Partizan Belgrade, the 21-year-old knew it was time for a new chapter.
Having watched players younger than him like Dusan Vlahovic come through the ranks and make the grade, Birmančević understood he was better off moving to pastures new.
In total Birmančević made just three appearances at Partizan Belgrade.
When the Serbian giants let the then 21-year-old go at the time it did not seem like they were losing a mercurial talent or an unearthed gem.
Veljko Birmančević had scored just one league goal in 36 appearances during two separate loan spells. He was a player who was never quite enough. Someone who had potential but maybe lacked commitment or cutting edge when push came to shove.
The Serb had developed a reputation for a player with the tendency to take on one too many dribbles and shoot when there were other options ahead of him.
Fast forward the clock two years ahead and the 23-year-old is now one of Europe’s best kept secrets and most in-form forwards on the cusp of making his Serbian senior international debut.
And one who could also be strutting his stuff in the Champions League with Malmö during the 2021/22 season.
The bold step
There is no binary period between when a player should ‘make it’ and when a player’s career should be written off.
No player development story is the same. And the old adage it’s never too late, tends to ring true.
For Birmančević, his career began when he loosened the shackles of Partizan’s hold.
Moving to FK Čukarički, the flashy winger was able to spread his wings. And under the guidance of Dusan Djordjevic who became his coach during the 2019/20 season, Veljko Birmančević flourished.
In previous systems, the winger was often restricted in his movements but Djordjevic saw a rough diamond in Birmančević and gave the Serbian the freedom to flourish in his team.
After failing to find the back of the net in 25 appearances during the 2018/19 season, Birmančević scored four times and registered nine assists in 33 appearances under Djordjevic.
There was an understanding between the pair of them. Djordjevic saw Birmančević’s penchant dribbling ability and he refined and honed it to make it effective in the final third.
He also took him under his arms and made the young star believe in his ability.
The more the Serbian played, the more he exploded and at one point he attracted the interest of Red Star Belgrade.
But in the end it was Malmö who lured him away from his homeland.
A stepping stone
Birmančević is not the first player of Balkan descent to endear himself to the hearts of the Malmö supporters. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was certainly the first.
The club are the most successful team in Sweden, and have had the likes of Emil Forsberg and Ola Toivonen don the pale blue shirt in recent years.
At Malmö, working alongside the legendary Jon Dahl Tomasson, who was a prolific goalscorer back in his day, Birmančević has refined his finishing and eye for goal.
What makes him a formidable prospect in contrast to two years ago is his level of maturity and vision.
In the final third, Birmančević’s legs would have turned to jelly two years prior, but now he exudes confidence and he plays with an aura of inevitability about him.
It’s almost like he expects to score goals. Much of that should be credited with the way Tomasson has integrated him into the side and made Veljko Birmančević the focal point of the team.
“Veljko has a style that gets the audience on their feet, I think, when they come back after the coronavirus, he is certainly a player who can do it.
“He did it here in Belgrade with his moves, challenges, breakthroughs, and some unexpected solutions, he really is someone that the audience loves.
“He also has the speed and breakthrough power, physical attributes to add to the technical ones. A real maestro in all that,” Birmančević’s former coach Dusan Djordjevic described his former protégé to Fotboll Skanalen earlier this year.
And there is definitely an element of truth to that. Birmančević is the type of player who gets the fans glued to his feet when he is on the ball.
But there is much more to the Serbian international than just flashy skills and mazy dribbles.
In the past few years he has become an all-round player with multiple facets.
Since 2019/20, Birmančević ‘s shooting per 90 has more than doubled from 1.38 to 3.91 and at the same time his shot on target percentage has improved from 30.4% to 47.3%.
His movement has been refined and his ability to anticipate space inside the box as well as to carry the ball into dangerous situations has matured.
In 2019/20, he averaged 3.47 touches inside the penalty area. Meanwhile, this season he has averaged 6.04 and is close to doubling his stats from two years ago despite moving to a much tougher league.
It is no surprise, Birmančević has had more fortune in front of goal as he now takes on more shots and get himself in dangerous situations more often.
Passing wise, Birmančević has also become infinitely more perceptive and effective.
In the past, he used to rack of his assists by winning penalties inside the box. An area which he is still very effective in but he now also takes more time to look up and spot teammates in dangerous situations on the pitch.
In the 2019/20 season he averaged 0.59 key passes per 90 and 0.64 smart passes. This season he has averaged 1.2 key passes per 90 (the highest in the Allsvenskan) and makes 0.96 smart passes per 90.
In almost every metric the Serbian has doubled his effectiveness. He oozes confidences and has matured into a player who can impact games at decisive moments against formidable opponents like Rangers and Ludogorets.
En Route to the Champions League?
In six games so far in the Champions League qualifiers, Birmančević has netted three times and registered two assists.
He has been Malmö’s most influential player by far in their quest to return to the Champions League for the first time in six years.
His best moment so far has come against Rangers at home where a well taken first time finish and a sumptuous cross for his teammate inside the box was enough to give Malmö the all important 2-1 victory.
Against Ludogorets, Birmančević scored with another first time finish from outside the box to give his side a 2-0 lead heading into the away leg in Bulgaria.
In two years time, Birmančević has gone from a failed Partizan graduate to one of Europe’s most underrated young stars who could be competing against the best clubs in the world starting next month.
Only time will tell, but at 23-years-old, there is now a feeling that it’s a matter of when not if Birmančević does make it to the top.
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