Nikola Vlasic

The recent comments from Nikola Vlasic where he critically assessed his time in England with Everton are for the most part an unhelpful deviation away from what has been a remarkable season he is having on loan at CSKA Moscow. While I understand the frustration of many of the fans I do find it hard to get as worked up about the conduct of modern footballers. My own cynicism leads me to the view that they care little about the football club they play for beyond cursory of what best suits their immediate needs. To provide a defence for players, you could well say this is indicative of the game as a whole where short-termism and greed have taken over. Where supporters would once have given players well over a year to prove their worth, judgements are now often made after a small run of fixtures. When you see the ruthless clearing out of players over the summer at Everton, can we be at all surprised that players too have become more ruthless over time? While I don’t like what the game has become, I have accepted it and start from a position that the players don’t care much about the football club. If they do this is great, but it’s not an imperative, what is an imperative to me is they contribute to the football club which Vlasic is showing signs he can do going forward.

While some may be uneasy with such an approach, it perhaps would make even more sense for Vlasic than for a stereotypical professional. This is a player who left his boyhood team at 19 to join the team that knocked them out of the Europa League. It hints at a highly motivated, ambitious young man who is not afraid to take chances and back himself to move forward. While these are all values we like when a player joins us, it would be inconsistent to dislike them when they are displayed during his stay at the club. For Vlasic Everton is another stop on his what he will hope is his journey to the top. For Everton we need to persuade Vlasic we too want to be on that same journey, or at the very least next summer will not be the right time for him to move on from the club.

When I consider his performances for the club thus far there are distinctly two groups, notably before Koeman left and after he was sacked. Before Koeman left I felt he showed enormous promise in performances, particularly in the Europa League. You could well make a case he was amongst Everton’s best performers under Koeman last season, but also one has to acknowledge this was a particularly low bar that was set.

He will likely reflect that this was as good as it got for him. He was unceremoniously dropped from the squad under caretaker manager Unsworth. While some may read into this as an indication of attitude problems I am more forgiving of Vlasic than this. I suspect Unsworth knew he needed quick results as a result of Everton’s lowly league position, but also because he was trying to build a case for the managerial role through the teams performances. He tended to stick to players he knew and had worked with. A new recruit in the summer, particularly one who would more easily fit into the “mercurial” camp as opposed to the “functional” was unlikely to be top of Unsworths list when it came to selection. It is not a dig at Unsworth who faced with a side in relegation bother did what most manager would do in disregarding a young flair player, but what can’t be doubted is it did little to aid Vlasic’s development. I suspect some of the comments he made, about a lack of attacking football in England reflect this period.

The eventual appointment of Sam Allardyce after Unsworth was never going to be the sort of appointment that would have benefitted him. If Silva has arrived last autumn it may have been a different story playing out, but it probably came as no great surprise Vlasic was involved very little under Allardyce. His inclusions seemed to be erratic and without an awful lot of forethought as to the sort of fixtures that would benefit his development. I remember one of his last appearances was a home fixture against Manchester United where he made his first appearance in weeks, in a game he underwhelmed in and I was left wondering quite what the manager expected?

Perhaps one area where I would say there is legitimate criticism of Vlasic is that he didn’t really take the opportunities presented to him in pre-season. He seemed to be in rotation with Keiran Dowell and while I don’t think either massively pushed themselves to the forefront of the managers mind, Dowell looked the better of the two. By the end of the window he was on a list of 4 other players “banished” from training though I do question whether he was on the left for different reasons to the other 3. Given Silva has subsequently commented favourably about Vlasic I wonder if he was disappointed at Vlasic wanting to leave the club and had hoped he would stay and fight for his place?

If that were the case then the performances of Vlasic on loan will likely have shifted that view. To me it was a very good loan move for Vlasic, not just because he is playing regularly at a commendable team, but also because he is gaining valuable European experience. Had he have remained he presented something of a problem for Everton. With so much change occurring at seemingly every level of the club as well as the emergence of many younger players it would be easy to assume a more mercurial talent such as Vlasic is a problem for Silva. His improved performances at CSKA Moscow indicate a player that needs attention, consistency and regularity of minutes in a set position to flourish. What Everton could probably have offered him this season would have been high caliber coaching and sporadic opportunities in different positions. It is difficult to see how Vlasic’s form could improve in that context and confidence would likely have dipped as a result.

The loan move to CSKA looked a fantastic opportunity for him. On reflection of his move (and Lookmans before him) I would suggest the club need to learn to control the narrative around such moves better.  With both Onyekuru and Lookman before and then Vlasic there is little put out to differentiate their loan experiences from that of Mirallas, Martina or Williams. However the difference between them are plentiful, one group are being loaned because we are unable to sell, the other are being loaned because we are unwilling to sell but crucially still see a future for them. I am not sure the club benefits from allowing loans of all players to be reflected in a similar way, that it is a pre-amble to their departure. Even if it were the case with young players, it is a naïve way of approaching the subject matter, because there is a likelihood the player will improve on loan, perhaps significantly so and could make you look foolish if you have not left open the potential of them coming back to play in your first team. By adopting such an approach you will also keep a connection in the players mind and perhaps limit the number of comments emerging similar to that of Vlasic over the last few days.

This of course may be slightly overplaying their own plan for Vlasic. However when we delve into his numbers and performances if the club were not already thinking of entertaining the option of him returning then this is a change they need to begin to embrace.

I did a short comparison with Gylfi Sigurdsson domestic form (enjoying his best spell at the club) and Vlasic’s form stands up favourably. Sigurdsson has played 1 more game (9 to Vlasic’s 8) and both players have been awarded 2 man of the match’s. Sigurdsson’s defensive work is better 1.4 tackles, 1.2 interceptions & 0.3 clearances to Vlasic’s 1.1 tackles, 0.5 intercepts and 0.8 clearances  (all stats on a per game basis). Given that Sigurdsson has unusually high defensive stats these are very respectable from Vlasic. With the ball Vlasic has more shots (2.8 v 2.6) and more dribbles (2 v 1) while Sigurdsson has more Key passes (2.9 v 2.6) and is dispossessed less (1.1 v 2.1). Both players have a similar pass % figure with Vlasic 78.4% and Sigurdsson 77.6% but Vlasic makes much more passes per game (35 v 22) though Sigurdsson crosses the ball more often (2.1 v 0.6). One final stat worth mentioning, is that within the champions league Vlasic is currently rated in the top 10 players on the website and his “key passes” per game currently stands at 3.7 per game. This has him in 7th place in the competition overall, sandwiched between Pellegrini, Cuadrado, David Silva, Kroos & Neymar above him and Isco, Hirving Lozano and Callejon below him.

While there is undoubtedly some cynicism around stats, the figures quoted above will be hard to ignore for the Everton management. Within the Champions League he has been playing for a club who are by no means a leading light but putting in displays which are consistent with some of the top playmakers in more highly ranked clubs. Most of the players he is mentioned alongside are either older than him or playing for one of the leading teams. The exception to both is Lozano who has been highly courted by Marcel Brands and many Evertonians would welcome him to the club, so there is a legitimate question to ask why wouldn’t we welcome Vlasic back? The winning goal he scored against European champions Real Madrid has been what has caught many people’s eyes, but is actually more the tip of the ice-berg in terms of what is striking in Vlasic’s performances so far.

When you then plug in his domestic performances you see a player who is performing at a similar level to Gylfi Sigurdsson albeit in quite a different way. Where Sigurdsson contributes to the defensive side of the game more Vlasic is noticeably better at making passes. This is a useful metric for a player who is able to more easily dictate the flow of the game. There is also probably more of an adaptability to Sigurdsson’s game by the number of crosses he makes, showing he is comfortable in wider areas whereas arguably Vlasic needs a more central role where he can get on the ball. The ability to make key passes (passes that create a shot on goal) is right up there with some of the most productive players in the champions league so far.

None of the above indicates that Vlasic will either be wanted back at Everton or will want to come back. However the experience of Ademola Lookman this summer shows there will be a clear resolve from the club to not only hang on to their best young players, but also not allow for younger players to be seen to be dictating terms to the club. Ultimately this can only be a good thing with the number of talented young players we have within the squad and the clear plan to look to bring in younger players. If Vlasic continues to replicate his form then it’s hard to see Everton not wanting to involve him next season. What we have also seen, is in spite of some initial difficulties eventually young players will get their heads down and work hard as Lookman looks to be doing.

The comments he made will undoubtedly incur some wrath yet I do have sympathy with them. The Premier League is filled with many teams who are happy to compete and not focused enough on how to win. Yet under Silva and Brands stewardship Vlasic may well be pleasantly surprised what he returns too 12 months down the line. There has to be every hope, that with another 2 positive windows that Everton can go into next season ultimately hoping to break into the top 4. Much of that will depend on the continued development of one of the youngest squads in the Premier League and some returning players having an impact. Vlasic may himself have an important part to play in that process, and can hopefully see that the Allardyce period was an unwelcome period for the club and not one we are keen to repeat.

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