The first time Marcelo Brozovic set foot at San Siro was on November 16, 2014, when Croatia played Antonio Conte's Italy in the fourth match of the 2016 European Championship qualifiers. Marcelo, who was turning 22 that day, was then a promising midfielder at Dinamo Zagreb. Little did he he know that, only two months later, that very stadium would become his home and, five years down the line, the opposition's manager would coach him at Inter, making him the pre-eminent midfield pawn in his title-challenging side.
Despite being asked to play in many different positions, over the past six seasons Brozovic has patiently managed to refine his skills and evolve into one of the most complete central midfielders in the world. It comes as no surprise that it took Antonio Conte very little time to gauge how crucial of a weapon he had at his disposal, give him clear directions and empower him to become the team's centre of gravity.
First and foremost, the Croatian is an insatiable runner, currently leading Serie A in most ground covered with an average of 12.57 kilometres per game. What's most important, however, is that his relentless movement on the pitch is never insignificant.
Defensively, his main task is to dampen and put pressure on the opponents' possession, tackle the ball carrier and either help his teammates regain position or set up an offensive play. His aggressiveness, great vision and exceptional ball handling skills make him a constant threat for the opposition: as many teams have learnt first-hand throughout the season, being dispossessed by Brozovic will most likely result in a dangerous breakthrough play.
Even though Conte's game plan doesn't mostly revolve around counter attacks, Inter's promptness to capitalize on these situations has already come in handy in a number of games, and this is especially thanks to Brozovic and his ability to connect with Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez up front. Being able to quickly turn the defence into offence makes the midfielder both one of the best tacklers and playmakers in the league, with an average of 2.6 tackles and 70/78 passes completed per game (five assists so far).
Offensively, he is the team's metronome. Inter's 3-5-2 line up is designed to control the game with long strings of possession aimed at smothering the opposition's resources and creativity, a system that Brozovic thrives in. From the very centre of the field, he takes part in every possession and dictates his teammates the right movements and the most suitable strategy to break the lines.
Switching flanks, dribbling, creating space, playing long balls forward or splitting the defence with a sudden give-and-go, the skills in his repertoire are many, and he has been displaying them with increasing confidence since the beginning of the season.
The Croatian's unmatched authority in Conte's system became more apparent than ever in late January, when a sprained ankle forced the midfielder to sit out two and a half games. Without their beacon, Inter's well-oiled gears suddenly started looking rustier, and controlling games became a tougher task than usual.
This was also the case on Sunday night in Udine, when the Nerazzurri just couldn't find a way to break the deadlock. At the 58th minute, Brozovic was subbed in to replace Christian Eriksen. Within 13 minutes, Inter had already found the back of the net twice and, in the build-up to the first goal, it was none other than the Croatian who started the play with a long pass to Nicolò Barella on the edge of the box.
Notably due to the injuries of Barella and Stefano Sensi, Inter's midfield has been heavily troubled over the past three months, forcing Antonio Conte to dust second-to-third choices from the bench. It is safe to say that, during this time, it's been up to Brozovic to keep the core of the team together, and he has done so with notable leadership and efficiency.
Now that the two Italians have fully recovered and the team can count on an additional talent like Eriksen, fans can breathe a sigh of relief and look at the next crucial fixtures with a good dose of confidence. With one of the league's most complete midfields up and running again, we can expect Epic Brozo to deliver even more of his magic.