As Manchester United’s need for a centre-back drags on and on, it is quite obvious that they will get what they are in a dire need of someday. Not only because of their stature, but also because of the number of players they have been linked with.
One of United’s most interesting targets happens to be Fiorentina’s Nikola Milenkovic- someone who has been linked with a host of other clubs too over the past few months. The Serbian is considered to be one of the Serie A’s brightest young stars and it is certainly no surprise to see him get linked to a top club. That too, when they need a player of his position more than they have ever had over the last few years.
Although, many have referred to Milenkovic as being the ‘next Nemanja Vidic’ because of links with United, but the 21-year-old is nowhere close to being the former Man United skipper. In fact, he’s much more than that. That aggressive and no-nonsense side to his game is yet to mature fully, but Milenkovic is much better on the ball than Vidic was. His ability to be very good on the ball has allowed him to be a very reliable player at right-back.
He has played 16 times at right-back this season, appearing 10 times at centre-back. And although he originally happens to be a centre-back ever since his days at Partizan Belgrade, but on having seen his impressive abilities on the ball, Stefano Pioli made Milenkovic the club’s first-choice back ahead of Bruno Gaspar towards the fag end of last season. And he thrived there, with his positioning standing out and his ability to read the game helping the side.
It isn’t just how he reads the game and anticipates where the ball will end up next that is impressive, it is his stature that makes him a man to watch out for at the back. Milenkovic uses his body to near perfection. Troubling opposition players when their on the ball or when they’re trying to get shots and headers away. And when that ability couples up with his reading and anticipation, it makes him the defender that Manchester United are after.
He isn’t a fierce tackler or a ferocious ball-winner at the back. He just uses his body and relies on his reading. It is the latter that helps him more, being a cultured defender that he is. Exactly why he’s made 1.9 tackles per game this season, making 1.3 interceptions per game too. But perhaps the reason why he uses his body to ‘near’ perfection is because of getting carried away and making cheeky, needless fouls. It could be a part of his style, but it will be known as he gets older over the next few years.
What will benefit Manchester United the most though isn’t just his physicality, stature or reading of the game, it is his aerial ability. He wins as many as 3 aerial duels per game and is ranked 11th in terms of that stat in the Serie A this season. For a Manchester United side that seems to now be settled with having Victor Lindelof as the first-choice centre-back, Milenkovic could make up for the Swede’s frequent adeptness in the air.
Having both Lindelof and Milenkovic as a centre-back pairing could mean having two players who are sort of in the same mould on paper. But football is never played on paper. Milenkovic’s mixture of abilities allows him to be as good a sweeper as a ball-playing defender like Lindelof. He can play slightly deeper than Lindelof, who would be conducting play ahead of him and starting attacks from the back. While Lindelof can’t do the job of a sweeper, Milenkovic’s completeness will certainly come in very handy.
But the biggest problem playing both of them together will be the experience. Its obvious that playing together in the same side will make them better over time, but it sometimes seems as though United are more in search of a more established centre-back than Milenkovic is. Someone who has played 3 or 4 seasons in a top league and proved himself to be one of the best in the game or in Europe. Lindelof is still considered and upcoming star at Old Trafford and isn’t a finished product yet. So is Eric Bailly, to a lesser extent. And playing a more experienced defender alongside Lindelof would have lesser room for problems than fielding Milenkovic beside him. Especially with the business end of the season now in full flow and with a game against Paris Saint-Germain coming up.
It isn’t to say that the Serbian is a bad defender at all. Nothing is guaranteed in football, no matter how much we speculate and analyze on paper. But it seems to be a strategy that United are adopting to discover stars of the future again by showing enough faith in them to succeed instead of signing players who are already well established stars for massive fees. But even if a move to Manchester United doesn’t work out in the short term for Milenkovic, it will work out in the long term.
By Kaustubh Pandey (@Kaus_Pandey17)