Amidst rising tensions regarding Liverpool’s transfer business, and the multitudes of social media seething in contempt over their American overlords, people are desperate for rumours, for some sort semblance of positivity regarding Liverpool’s summer (one that hasn’t even properly begun yet.)
So, here’s to a little bit of positivity.
One of the chief rumours coming out of the successful 2016/17 season was the Reds’ pursuit of the rising star Naby Keita, who was equally successful with Bundesliga newboys RB Leipzig.
That is one of the key reasons why Keita has now become a peripheral figure on the plausibility scale of the Reds’ summer business: Liverpool’s budget will now be devoted to obtaining Southampton centre half Virgil van Dijk, who is looking at Liverpool to offer the gargantuan sum that the Saints are holding out for. With a figure in the region of €50 million to contend with, an energy drink giant not willing to part with their star players lightly and Champions League football waiting in the wings, it would be a significant task to pry Keita away from his Bundesliga home.
Which is where the Serbian powerhouse currently plying his trade in the Italian capital comes into the fray.
The 6 ft. 3” monster of a midfielder is a dominator, not simply in the physical sense of the word. When he’s on form, and on fire, he’s constantly on the ball. Appreciating the more intense, physical side of the game, you’d be mistaken for thinking Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a pure brute of a midfielder.
But he is so much more than that.
Capable on the ball as well as dribbling at defenders, he’s deployed in an attacking sense in a midfield three. Coming from Genk to the Stadio Olimpico, he’s always favoured a more free-roam, attacking sensibility towards his football, and thus wouldn’t suit a role in defensive midfield. He could operate in a two if he was stuck next to a defensive midfielder: someone like Grzegorz Krychowiak or Leandro Paredes, given his tendency to hang a few metres in front of the deepest lying midfielder, receive the first pass out from a ball-win and surge forward with the ball. He also likes to combine with wingers around the box, and has a Gini Wijnaldum-esque tendency to make late runs into the box (think Gini’s header against Manchester City, but from a towering 6ft 3” frame.)
Strengths and Weaknesses
As mentioned previously (a couple of times) Milinkovic-Savic’s height is where he stands out. At least, at a first glance.
Really, he’s got so much in his locker, beyond the mere physicality. He’s got the football intelligence on the ball, and the desire to play short passes quickly and constantly. It’s part of the reason that he’d be a suitable option if the Naby Keita deal falls through. Both are bustling with energy, like to run at players and are mostly attacking in nature. Where Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (or, as he’s becoming affectionately known, SMS) plays a more box-to-box, energetic midfielder, who likes to start central and chase back (he makes a healthy 2.1 tackles per game), Keita positions himself in the right place to begin with, then launches a counter-attack.
SMS is a less complete midfielder, yes, and needs to work on both crossing and passing (his passing percentage is just 73.4%, due to his tendency to look for a risky, ambitious pass) but he’s got the raw materials there to be crafted into something genuinely exciting.
Comparisons to Emre Can will be made too, of course, but in reality, they’re very different players: both are bulky and physical, but Emre Can’s passing and defensive work is superior and Milinkovic-Savic is a much more dangerous threat when it comes to dribbling through the middle of the park and being a threat in and around the box.
Lazio’s counter-attacking style favours him, but even a deep-set box leaves the defence in a precarious position: as SMS will try and force his way into the box with one-two layoffs and quick passing. He takes exactly two shots per game, and they’ll often come from audacious places: but his ability to finish has certainly developed over his time at Lazio.
Not only that, but he’s registered 7 assists (most of which have come from direct passes into or around the box) on top of his 4 goals.
Where will he fit in?
Alongside Phil Coutinho and Emre Can, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would be unleashed in the middle of the park. With the powerful dribbler beside him, Coutinho can weave his way in and out of the opposition’s midfield, and the physicality allows Emre Can to cover ground, while also be aware that any mistake would be mopped up by his Serbian counterpart.
A move has been rumoured courtesy of Italy’s Corriere Dello Sport – though the report also suggested Lazio rejected the initial bid, wanting to get somewhere close to €70 million for their star midfielder. Of course, that number’s obscene, and any deal would likely be made around the €35 million mark – certainly cheaper than Naby Keita. Would the move hinder Marko Grujic? That’s entirely dependent on whether Jürgen Klopp sees Marko Grujic as a more defensive midfielder, because SMS certainly isn’t that.
But should the towering Serb find himself leaning at Melwood, he’d be a key figure in Klopp’s plans going forward, and would be the kind of midfielder that the German Ulsterman could build his team around for a long time to come.