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Luka Jovic’s signing was urgently needed — so how does he fit?

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Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on Real Madrid signing one of the most promising strikers in Europe, and how he’ll mesh with the team

Eintracht Frankfurt v FC Internazionale - UEFA Europa League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.


Some 92 days after Eder Militao signed for Real Madrid; Luka Jovic becomes the second name to arrive as the team goes through a lengthy rebuilding process. Militao and Jovic plug two of the many holes at the bottom of a sinking ship — other corks will soon follow.

Jovic, a lethal finisher with age on his side, ticks every box for Florentino Perez and the board: He’s composed in front of goal and confident enough to execute audacious finishes when in goalscoring positions, he can co-exist with Karim Benzema, is an upgrade over any traditional striker the club has on the books, and his age is in-line with Florentino’s new model of signing the best young players in the world to get a head start on the team’s future core.

Almost every Real Madrid loss this season (pre-Zizou, before the season officially ended) had a huge underlying issue: The lack of a reliable goalscorer. That’s underselling the team’s problems — a broken scheme laced with jittery build-up, poor coverage, an undefined offensive identity, or any real threat to meet the barrage of predictable crosses that defenders gobbled up. Benzema, statistically, had one of the three best seasons of his career — but you can’t rely on him as your alpha attacker in big games. He’s a piece of the puzzle — not the main cog.

There are games, like the loss against Rayo Vallecano in April, where the team creates nothing. In Vallecas, Real had an xG of .46. The team was an offensive zero. You can also take this back to Lopetegui and Solari’s Real Madrid, where, the team conjured a .49 xG against Alaves, and .46 against Huesca. Jovic is not going to unlock those games. Those games were torturous to the eye — the offense was stagnant, and in the case of Huesca, the team couldn’t even get into the opposition’s half they were so unnerved with a high press.

That offensive confusion doesn’t get flipped into a new state of control with the arrival of a traditional striker — it’s going to take months of training ground exercises and film study; or as we’ve seen this season, individuals showing their brilliance to break lines and carry a busted blueprint.

But Jovic was needed. He was the best striker available, and bang-for-buck — in this market where future stars are hot commodity — bringing in a 21-year-old clinical striker was a no-brainer. Jovic’s father and agent stated in March that Jovic was not interested in going to Barcelona because he was too good to be a back-up to Luis Suarez. Barcelona’s loss is Real Madrid’s gain. Jovic fills an immediate need — directly addressing the issue of missed chances in big games.

The only attacker in Real Madrid’s squad not named Karim Benzema who outperformed their xG this season was Mariano. That’s not a good sign. Mariano is a capable striker, and should have a bright career still given he remains healthy. He, along with Gareth Bale, was the only one capable of the rare trio of goal-scoring traits: Shot volume, long-distance shooting, and aerial ability. Gareth Bale underperformed. Mariano’s numbers tell us one thing: He could take a low goalscoring chance and turn it into an unlikely goal. But Mariano barely played even in rare moments he was available, and no one else stepped up outside Benzema.

Shot volume shouldn’t be downplayed, as I wrote about back in October. It generates chaos and unpredictability. Ronaldo was the master at it. Four of the best offensive players in La Liga this year — Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Raul de Tomas, Antoinne Grizemann — are prolific shooters. Benzema led the team in shots per game (2.9) while leading the team in scoring. Players who can generate their own offense have high value. Jovic has the efficiency to go with his ability to get into goal-scoring positions. He ranked fifth in the Bundesliga in shots per game, and outperformed his xG. He is a fulcrum of offensive firepower. He has an off-ball instinct that Real Madrid haven’t had since Ronaldo left. Jovic constantly moves, he zips around in space and finds openings to attack crosses. Ante Rebic and Sebastien Haller — the two attackers that completed Frankfurt’s attacking trio with Jovic — loved playing alongside him for that reason. Jovic always knew where to be.

“[He] reminds me of Sergio Aguero with his technique and instinct,” one of Jovic’s former coaches at Benfica, Helder Cristavao, said of him back in his Primeria Liga days.

Real Madrid loved crossing when Ronaldo, the father of behemoths and off-ball movement, was around to dunk on helpless defenders. The club never figured out how to reimagine their offensive scheme in a way that isn’t reliant on crossing to weak finishers after the Portuguese star left. Zidane can continue crossing now with Jovic in the fold. The Serbian is an expert at navigating his way to meet the pass:

Jovic knows when to cut towards the box, but pull back his run at just the right moment. He creates space for himself:

Given Jovic’s instinct and natural feel for where to be in the box, Benzema can continue to drift deeper, play off of Jovic the way Haller did at Frankfurt, or hedge towards the left. Jovic is best close to goal. Defenders can take him out of the game by forcing him wide to the flanks or away from the box (though, Jovic is really good at vertical pass-and-move sequences starting from about 40 yards out). He will be the spearhead of the attack most games.

Jovic is a fighter, too — a relentless pistol you’d go to war with in any high-stake scenario. He will not be a bystander on offense. If the team has the ball, he’ll be looking to get into space. When the team is defending, he is an aggressive player looking to win the ball back. Jovic is feisty and hungry. He attributes this to his coach at Eintracht, Niko Kovac, who emphasized fitness and diligency. That part of his game, Jovic says, was not always there.

“In one month in Frankfurt I ran more than in an entire year in Lisbon,” Jovic says.

“I just needed someone like Niko Kovac to wake me up. He demands the maximum and gets the maximum out of someone. I have Niko Kovac to thank for the success I now have.”

Haller, Jovic’s wingman this season, says about Jovic, “He brings everything: he’s fast, robust, technically savvy and a super finisher.”

Like Haller, Benzema and Eden Hazard will love playing with Jovic. Hazard hasn’t had a world class striker next to him since Diego Costa left Chelsea. They’ll make each other look good. Hazard can rack up his assist numbers and thrive in an environment where he doesn’t have to be the team’s main scorer — carrying a withering offense as a false 9, or alongside the dinosaur remnants of Gonzalo Higuain. Jovic will go from being surrounded by Rebic and Haller, to being ringed by Hazard, Benzema, and Vinicius. So many of Jovic’s goals came from overloads from his full-backs — that’s Real Madrid’s bread and butter.

With so much of the play going through the left side again, as has been the case in years’ past, there should be plenty of opportunities for cross-field switches to the right — allowing Jovic to make a hooking run into the box while Carvajal gets a cross in.

Jovic’s main criticism is the limited sample size in which he’s produced his numbers in. He scored 25 goals in 43 matches in the 2018 - 2019 season — it’s the only season in his career he’s scored more than 10 goals. His track record before this is not as stimulating, even though Frankfurt did see promise from him early on despite not being prolific in front of goal. In the 2017 - 2018 season, his first loan spell at Frankfurt from Benfica, Jovic scored nine goals in 27 games. In two seasons combined at Benfica before that, he played just four times. With the Benfica B team, he scored just four goals total in two seasons. This signing is, without having to stretch the imagination too far, a gamble.

But almost every signing is a gamble. No gamble was bigger than signing Vinicius for the unproven age and high price — but it looks like a great move now. Waiting to sign Jovic later could’ve resulted in two scenarios: 1) Jovic’s 2019 - 2020 campaign turns out to be a complete bust, which nose-dives his value (and at that point, you stay away from him); or 2) He continues his upward trajectory, and 60m suddenly becomes north of 80.

Neither party could take a risk to delay the move. Real Madrid need a goalscorer, and Jovic fits. Frankfurt could’ve held on and took a different kind of risk: Jovic regresses along with his value, or he gets an unthinkable injury. It was always likely the negotiations would finish around the initial asking price — rather than Frankfurt’s reported refusal to sell for less than 100m — once both parties realized this.

“It was clear that there was a limit to what kind of bid we could refuse,” Frankfurt board member Fredi Bobic said after the sale. “For Eintracht Frankfurt this is a good and important transfer,”

For Frankfurt, this move hurts from a pure footballing perspective. Jovic put Frankfurt on the map this season, and took them on an impressive Europa League run, where, despite Jovic scoring, they ultimately fell short to Chelsea — but not without taking them to extra time at Stamford Bridge. But clubs like Frankfurt have to cash in, and given they had faith in an unproven Jovic in the first place (and groomed Jesus Vallejo brilliantly under Niko Kovac), they should be able to use that transfer fee wisely.

“We wish Luka all the best in the future. He has all the attributes to have a great career. And we are proud that we have supported him on his way” said Bobic. “From a sporting point of view selling Luka Jovic is a big blow.”

“His explosiveness and capacity to score goals propelled us into [Big Vase] and we have benefited from more than just his goals in the past two years.”

Now Zidane has an important piece to his attacking puzzling. It’s all part of a difficult project to rejuvenate a dying team. It won’t be easy, and if fans are expecting everything to click right away next season, they’ll have to re-evaluate their expectations. There will be growing pains, and there will be good players who will find themselves on the fringes. Zidane has so many options at his disposal.

Benzema and Vinicius looked like one single moving heartbeat in their limited time playing with each other this season. They looked so good linking up together. How will that dynamic change now? Can Zidane fit them both, along with Hazard and Jovic, in one formation? That gets morphed into a 4-4-2 — leaving two remaining spaces for a slew of central midfielders. Modric and Kroos could hold the double-pivot down, like they did against Real Sociedad in the 2017 - 2018 season. Alternatively, you could put Casemiro in one of those slots; while Asensio or Isco rotate in with Vinicius and Benzema. Where Lucas Vazquez and Rodrygo Goes fit in all this remains to be seen. Martin Odegaard will play one more season abroad; and Brahim Diaz will likely go out on loan. It’s unclear which crazy team takes a gamble on Gareth — if there’s a team that exists at all.

None of this should deter Real Madrid from holding on to one of Mariano Diaz or Raul de Tomas. Jovic won’t play every game. Zidane can roll deep into three competitions next season by keeping a rhythm in the style of play, and both Mariano and RDT can play the Jovic role. Having depth at that position allows you to not have to reinvent the wheel when Jovic can’t suit up.

It’s all exciting, but fans may still have to be up for a trophy-less season next year. Barcelona, on paper, should be stronger — making it that much harder to snatch La Liga away from them. If the team improves on this season, gets to the semi-finals of the Champions League, and comes second in La Liga, that shouldn’t be deemed as a failure so long as the process on the pitch is encouraging.

It will be tough for fans to look at it that way, but patience, as always, will be needed.