He was an unknown quantity when he was appointed in the summer, but there was one man at Lazio who was pleased to see Vladimir Petkovic named as Coach.
"For me he is a genius. He can read the game, he plays to attack and always wants to win,” were the words of Senad Lulic when the news of Petkovic's appointment was confirmed. And judging by his performances this season, it is easy to see why he was quite content with the new arrival.
Of course, Lulic was speaking from experience, as the two Bosnians have been together before. Petkovic coached him for two years when they were at Swiss club Bellinzona, and then again a couple of seasons later at Young Boys. In Switzerland Petkovic used him primarily as a wide midfielder where he returned a healthy goals to games ratio.
When he moved to Lazio last season, then Coach Edy Reja did not really seem sure as to what his best position was. He was used as a left midfielder – the role he was used to in Switzerland – a mezz'ala in a midfield three, a left-back and at times a trequartista. That combined with injuries hindered his ability to obtain consistency, but only Miroslav Klose, Tommaso Rocchi and Hernanes scored more goals over the season.
Whenever Reja opted for a narrow formation – which was not uncommon during his reign, particularly with Hernanes in the squad – it left him with a problem fitting Lulic in the team. The best place to keep him in a wide role was left-back, but while he was fine going forward there were problems defensively, and it was safer for the team to use the more reliable Stefan Radu in that position.
So then it became a case of finding a spot in midfield for him, which meant he was moved around depending on whether Lazio played narrow or with wide players. It is to his credit that his goals return was respectable in his first season in Italy, despite the constant adaptation he had to undergo.
This season is a different story – he has benefitted hugely from Petkovic's methods. His 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 means there is always a wide midfield spot for him, though ironically he has been settled at left-back for most games this season after Radu was ruled out of the two months recovering from knee surgery, with the Romanian only returning to the bench last Sunday at Fiorentina.
The use of Stefano Mauri in a wide left role, predominantly a central player who is happy to wander infield, means Lulic has the entire flank to attack to showcase his ability going forward. Crucially, however, he has tightened the belt defensively under a Coach with whom he has spent large parts of his career.
Reja has certainly noticed the improvement. “I see a Lulic that is growing and he is comfortable in that role,” his thoughts on the 26-year-old offered at the end of August this year. That growth has come at an important time for the club too. With Radu out until recently, Lulic was the senior left-back in the squad. The alternative, 21-year-old Luis Cavanda, is massively inexperienced and only made his 20th career appearance in club football this season.
If he can maintain this level throughout the season, it might not be long until he is coveted by others, particularly in a League where there are precious few full-backs that can provide superiority in the final third.