It seems to be either excellence or infuriation with Josip Ilicic. His career as a whole has been one of chance, good luck, frustration but backing it all up is an incredible talent. At 32 years of age, he is enjoying arguably the best season of his career and is certainly being talked about around Europe as a standout talent. Why has this player not been able to replicate this form, this consistency and this goal scoring record for seasons past? As many watched his halfway line strike hit the back of the net against Torino, it would not be surprising to many if some viewers would still ask, Josip who?
A haul of 13 goals in 17 Serie A games is quite an achievement from the attacking midfielder. It is already the joint best tally in his career to date. Last season he managed to score 12 times and he has hit double figures before for Atalanta, Fiorentina and Palermo, yet there are also seasons where he has hit two, three and five. If he had been able to replicate these numbers year in, year out, then he would’ve found himself at one of Europe’s elite clubs.
It was by chance that Ilicic emerged in one of Europe’s top leagues. In 2010, after Palermo had played NK Maribor in a European tie, the Slovenian was signed for €1.5m. Ilicic was born in Bosnia but his Slovenian mother took him back to Kranj after the death of his father when he was just one year old. Here, he honed his football skills playing with multiple junior clubs before ending up at NK Maribor.
From the start, it was evident that he was a talent and his early time at Palermo proved this. He was playing out wide at the beginning, as Javier Pastore occupied the trequartista position, but when he left, Josip was able to take on this role. He certainly had the natural attributes to be successful, he is 6ft 3in tall, strong and athletic. Whilst he has the build of a sprinter, he is incredibly skilful and has quick feet.
He has the ability to strike a ball like few others in Serie A and his highlight reels are immense, but also represent a bit of a problem. He should always be known as ‘highlight reel’ because if you just watched these you would assume he is one of the best players you have ever seen. The reality however, is that there are just as many that miss the target, or he can disappear from games entirely.
This is where assessing Ilicic becomes difficult. There are many players who play safe, don’t attempt the spectacular and instead play sensibly. This can be frustrating and therefore in return should one criticise a player for attempting the incredible? The game would be a much more boring spectacle if there were fewer players who would be brave. Admittedly, this may mean that Josip’s statistics may not look great if he is getting only one shot out of ten on target, but when it comes off, well there is a catalogue for reference.
Ilicic can be found wanting in other areas, often he gets caught out of position, he can defend too deep and Atalanta nicknamed him ‘the granny’ because of his constant complaining during training, but it seems that Gian Piero Gasperini has worked on this with him and now he seems more positionally astute and is often Atalanta’s main man counter attack. He also can be accused of showboating but again, how much can you criticise a player for trying to impress, he certainly isn’t going to stop now at 32 years of age.
So how do we judge Ilicic? Has his refusal to become more efficient or more tactically astute been a negative on his career? Could he have scored more goals? Would they have been less spectacular? Is he one of the last great Number 10’s who many would argue, belong in a different era? Is he simply an incredible talent, brave in approach and an entertainer? I for one would look to the latter, as to watch a player like this is exciting, as you never know what he is going to do, perhaps this is why he is so loved, but has never had a chance at one of Europe’s elite clubs.