Ever since Sergej Milinkovic-Savic joined Lazio from Genk, he has only evolved. Even in a campaign that was seen as underperforming for the Serbian, he has improved in some aspects and that has made him a better player. President Claudio Lotito was confident that clubs would come for the prized Biancocelesti star and match Lazio’s lofty price tag last summer. But instead of taking the price up, they have had to reduce it.
That isn’t to say that Sergej had a very good season, but he became a victim of his own hype. That is common in a football world dominated by Twitter and the over-magnification of the most minute of things.
Milinkovic-Savic’s expected goals in the 2017-18 season were only 6.58. He got 12- a clear over-performance. And that can’t happen in every season. This past term, the XG was at 6.05 and he got five goals, but it goes to show where the problem lies in the way the situation has been viewed.
Goals are a more tangible way of viewing a player in the Twitter age, but not every single time. Certainly not when it comes to explaining how Milinkovic-Savic has improved.
While he operates as an unorthodox midfield target-man who is often the focus of direct balls from wide or from the back and takes up advanced positions from the midfield, he has improved in some other ways.
He was dispossessed only 1.1 times per game last season- a clear improvement from the tallies of two and more from the past. He has also had fewer bad controls per game than in any other season. These are signs of the fact that the player has taken steps to improve his technical ability and he is succeeding in that regard too.
That isn’t to say that he had the best of seasons. He did improve in the second half of the campaign and famously scored in the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta. But unfairly so, it is the lack of goals that has become the focus of attention.
Last summer, Lazio and Simone Inzaghi planned a different training scheme for the Serbian to get him back to full fitness after a disappointing World Cup in which there werestill far worse performers than Milinkovic-Savic in the Serbian national side. The burden of the price-tag on him and tiredness from having played regular football over the year had taken a toll.
His performances dipped to such an extent that even the biancocelesti faithfuls branded him and Luis Alberto to be ‘fake talent’ who played ‘only for money’. That will never help a player get back to his very best.
He improved in the second half, and while the performances still weren’t perfect, it was a period of silent and gradual development. Because many forget that the man is still 24 and started off at Genk as a defensive midfielder. It is only at Lazio where Simone Inzaghi realised that he could play him further forward, using him as an outlet to target in a direct system that hardly relies on passing between the three midfielders in the 3-5-2 shape.
You will rarely see Milinkovic-Savic exchanging as many passes as Paul Pogba even when they often play in the same position for their teams (Juventus, for Pogba). On paper, that is why United see him as a replacement for the Frenchman, whose situation is growing complicated with every passing day.
But if you delve deeper, it becomes clear that Milinkovic-Savic may not be the sort of player United are looking for. Especially considering the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer likes to play a free-flowing brand of football in which Pogba has taken up the position of a second midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 shape in the pre-season friendlies.
Milinkovic-Savic isn’t as technically blessed as Pogba, even though he is very good on the ball. He can do a good job, but that won’t bring the best out of his abilities like it has at Lazio. Someone like Jose Mourinho could easily have utilised him in a better way because of his adherence to a direct brand of football than an aesthetic one.
But as previously mentioned, Milinkovic-Savic has improved his ability on the ball. Heading to United will likely improve it further. If nothing else, he can even do the sort of job that Marouane Fellaini often did during his stay at Old Trafford. He has the aerial ability to do so and also has a fire in the belly that United fans have been screaming out for in ongoing chaos.