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The Luka Jovic Saga

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Breaking down the peculiar case of Luka Jovic: What’s gone wrong, and what can be done to revive the Serbian striker’s form?

Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Misunderstood? Unlucky? One season wonder? Luka Jovic’s career has been a rollercoaster ride in the last couple of years as he went from being the star-boy at Frankfurt to being termed a flop in the Spanish capital within the space of one season.

But it wasn’t just a struggle on the field for Jovic. In fact, he hardly ever featured for Los Blancos as he was trusted to play just 430 minutes in LaLiga last season. It was a season in which he fell out with his national team coach over selection issues and then got criticized by the Prime Minister of Serbia after he was seen breaking self-isolation in his home country (an offence for which he could face six months in jail).

It’s fair to say that everything has gone downhill for Jovic ever since his big money move from Germany. But what went wrong?

The Frankfurt Days

Before we move to Jovic’s issues at Real Madrid, it is important to break down what exactly he was doing so well in Frankfurt. In this section, we will look at some of Jovic’s strengths and highlight what made him so successful in the German league.

In the 2018-19 season, Jovic scored a total of 29 goals while providing six assists in all competitions, as he played a vital role in Frankfurt’s impressive journey to reach the finals of the Europa League - one that they lost to Chelsea on penalty kicks. Here’s what Jovic’s statistical profile looked like for that season.

Jovic’s Profile - 18/19 Season

First off, one thing that we need to clear up is that Jovic is not a poacher. Despite being adequately effective in the box during phases of sustained possession, this is not Jovic’s strongest trait. In fact, in the 2018-19 season, Jovic had less touches in the opposition’s penalty area than Karim Benzema. And that is not all – check out Jovic’s shot map:

Jovic’s Shot Map for 2018/19 - Understat

The first thing to notice here is that very few of Jovic’s shots actually come from the six-yard box, showing his deviation from the classic “fox in the box” role. Another interesting observation is how Jovic prefers to shoot from high quality central areas (usually around the penalty spot), showcasing his awareness and intelligence.

The fact is that Jovic lives on transitions. He is at his best when the defenders are running back towards their goal and Jovic can use his movement to create separation from the defenders to get a shot away. And playing for an attacking Frankfurt side in the German League was the best opportunity for him to showcase his abilities. Luka Jovic looks at his best when he gets to run at a disorganized defensive line.

Once he has the defense peddling backwards, Jovic can exploit the spaces behind the line or simply get away from his markers using his brilliant off the ball movement to get on the end of the chances. He would do this by using various techniques (blindside runs, haltings his runs, and quick changes in direction). His movements are subtle but extremely effective, especially when targeted against a defense in transition, which is probably why Jovic isn’t as deadly in situations with sustained possession.

An important aspect of Jovic’s game is his overall contribution to the Frankfurt side. He is no Benzema in terms of his contribution to the build-up play (especially in tight spaces), but he would very often drop deep between the lines to spread the play. He was offered more freedom in this regard as he would play with Haller or Rebic as the main depth providers. This meant that Jovic could either drop deep or stretch the pitch horizontally by drifting wide without sacrificing the central presence in attack. He is especially comfortable at delivering long balls, crosses and switch of plays provided he is given some time on the ball.

This aspect of his game can be shown by using his pitch map available on Smarterscout.

Jovic’s Roaming Role 18/19 - Smarterscout

Note: The size of the boxes show the frequency of actions in a zone while the colour highlights a certain type of action, that can be identified by the legend on the left.

It is easy to see how Jovic doesn’t restrict himself to just one area of the pitch, as he likes to offer himself as a passing option between the lines. Once Jovic receives the ball, he doesn’t complicate things. He makes a simple pass towards the fullback or midfielder, although he doesn’t shy away from taking a risk every now and then. Again, Jovic’s tendency to play long passes very often can be seen from this chart.

Again, we can compare this to Benzema’s working zone for a better benchmark.

Benzema’s pitch map 18/19 - Smarterscout

Benzema’s chart from 18/19 is almost identical to his last season’s map. Showing how Benzema has a clear preference to the left flank and how the Frenchman relies heavily on short passes for combination play.

However, the thing that stands out the most from Jovic’s time at Frankfurt is his ability to strike the ball in front of the goal. Not only does he exhibit insane composure and confidence, he is also able to score using his left foot, right foot, or his head. In the 2018-19 season, Jovic scored a total of 17 league goals. Out of those, eight came from his right foot, six came from his left and three came from his head — showing his versatility and unpredictability.

His confidence is exhibited by some of the insane skills that he tries and more often than not, pulls off perfectly. He isn’t shy to go for volleys from either foot or try a bicycle kick from the edge of the 18-yard box.

Initial Problems

Things changed for Jovic when he moved to the Spanish capital as he was not just adapting to a new league, he had to fight Karim Benzema for a spot in the starting lineup. Unfortunately for Jovic, he couldn’t convince Zidane and ended up fathering just 430 LaLiga minutes in his first season. And his performances had taken a huge knock, as shown by his stats.

Jovic’s Profile - 19/20 Season

Although we can’t look too much into these statistics due to the small sample size, but the difference in performances is obvious. And there are multiple reasons for this.

One thing that is often forgotten when accounting for transfers is the difference in the playing style of different leagues. While Bundesliga and LaLiga are top tier leagues with great quality, they have some unique playing styles.

In Bundesliga, there is a great insistence on pressing high and winning the ball back as early as possible. What this means is that if teams manage to bypass the high press, they can easily generate attacking transitions with the opposition’s defense out of position. These are exactly the type of situations where Luka Jovic looked so good in his time at Frankfurt.

On the other hand, while many LaLiga teams like to press high too, they usually look to block the passing lanes to make progression more difficult. Not only that, most teams have a tendency to drop into deep or mid blocks once they lose possession and stay compact.

Note: This is a vast generalization as some teams in Bundesliga favour deep blocks and vice versa, and the differences between the top teams have kept decreasing over time but these are the general trends.

To top that, playing for Real Madrid means that most teams drop into low blocks anyway, which made things even harder for Jovic. For a comparison, oppositions allowed Frankfurt 10.5 passes in their own half per defensive action (OPPDA) in the 2018-19 season whereas Real Madrid were allowed 13.35 passes last season.

As a result, Jovic couldn’t enjoy the spaces that he likes to feast upon. This situation was further aggravated due to the way Real Madrid play. Unlike Frankfurt, Real Madrid are usually the team to dominate possession and showcase a more controlled approach with the ball. This includes a lot of horizontal passes and recycling of possession. Which made it even harder for Jovic to manipulate the spaces, where he did so well in Germany. And since Jovic is no Benzema, his struggles in the given structure should’ve been foreseen a while ago.

For the sake of a comparison, let’s use Smarterscout’s “passes towards the goal” metric to measure how Jovic’s tendency to produce forward passes has dropped drastically since joining Real Madrid.

Decrease in Jovic’s Forward Passes - Smarterscout

Now again, Jovic’s small sample size can be pointed out as an issue (although the difference is too big to be accommodated). Either way, we can take a brief look at Benzema’s performance in the same metric to get some idea as to how different Frankfurt and Real Madrid actually are, in terms of their style.

Jovic has also had to go through a minor change in his role at Real Madrid as he is often used as a classic no. 9. At Frankfurt, he would often play as a part of a front two with either Haller or Rebic partnering him, who’d act as the main striker and Jovic would play around them with more freedom to roam and drop between the lines.

At Real Madrid, however, he is tasked to play as the main striker due to the lack of a natural central presence. This often results in him being disconnected from the game, decreasing his influence further. This aspect was noticeable especially with Benzema on his side as the Frenchman had the freedom to roam and Jovic would often pin the center backs. Although doing this can bring the best out of Benzema as he can contribute to the overall game play without having to worry about getting at the end of chances, it takes a part of Jovic’s game away from him.

What we can do to bring the good ol’ Jovic back?

Despite the issues faced by Jovic, the fact remains that Real Madrid cannot control how the oppositions play against them. However, they can alter their playing style to get the best out of their 22-year-old striker. In this regard, they can make some personnel and stylistic adjustments to not only get the best out of Jovic but make their attack more effective as a unit.

The first possible change is to use Ødegaard’s positioning and ability to create semi-transition situations as explained by Om Arvind in this great piece. Ødegaard combines brilliant positioning between the lines and exquisite passing that can bring the best out of Luka Jovic. Not only does the Norwegian’s advanced positioning disrupt the opposition’s defensive structure and force them to peddle back, his quality also forces defenders to turn their attention, that can open up spaces for Jovic in transitions.

One stylistic adjustment needed to complete this transformation will involve taking advantage of the advanced positioning of players to facilitate vertical passing. Currently, Real Madrid rely heavily on wide progression, crosses, and switches of play from Kroos, Casemiro and Ramos. The slow progression and over-reliance on wide channels seems outdated considering the profiles in the current squad. However, a shift to a more vertical approach could bring the best out of Martin Ødegaard, Luka Jovic and Fede Valverde.

Another area Real Madrid need to improve in to make the whole attack more functional is to add a goalscoring outlet from the wide areas. This is one aspect that is keeping the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona lag the Liverpool, Manchester City, Bayern and PSGs of the world. Adding this piece would not only provide Jovic more freedom to express himself, it will also allow him more spaces due to the gravity of said player (*coughs* Mbappe). Although, this is more about the need of a specific profile than some specific player, as it opens up multiple avenues of goalscoring and adds more unpredictability to the team’s offense. But this profile is long overdue and needs to be added soon.

A natural question here would be: Is it worth making these changes just to accommodate Jovic? The answer to that is simple. Firstly, these changes are needed regardless of Jovic as they’d benefit the attacking structures as a whole. Secondly, in my humble opinion, Jovic provides a unique profile to this Real Madrid team that needs to be taken advantage of. I discuss this part in a little more detail in the next section.

The Current Season

This season started with some controversy regarding Mayoral’s comments about Jovic but things seem to be improving for the Serbian striker. So far, Jovic has started in two LaLiga games against Real Betis and Real Valladolid. Zidane opted for a 4-4-2 Diamond in both games, and although there were some obvious defensive issues, the attacking structure looked encouraging.

This was quite apparent in the game against Betis in which Ødegaard played at the tip of the diamond. Real Madrid’s progression involved more vertical passing and Real Madrid ended up creating a dangerous opportunity within the first two minutes.

But herein lies another important question: Can Madrid play with the Benzema-Jovic duo up top? Now, this is a very interesting case. Zidane has so far gone for a diamond formation and while the duo does a great job to bring out the best in Karim Benzema, and facilitates Jovic somewhat (especially when Ødegaard plays), the defensive structure becomes frail (as seen against Real Betis).

Moreover, this puts a lot of emphasis on the fullbacks, who become the main source of width and depth very frequently. So, while this can make the attack tick, Zidane should avoid using it as his number one option due to the defensive issues.

The only other option (considering we don’t opt for a three-at-the-back structure) is a flat 4-4-2. And while this does a good job of ensuring the pitch is stretched horizontally (something that Zidane loves to do), there isn’t enough control and progression in the midfield. Considering that Madrid cannot afford to go without Casemiro in the midfield, regardless of who the other pivot is (Kroos, Fede or Modric), this structure would struggle in progressing the ball through midfield with the balls into forwards and switches being the only main sources of ball progression into the final third.

To sum it up, a two-up-front formula (especially the diamond), does not seem to be a viable long-term plan despite doing both Benzema and Jovic a lot of good. Unless Zidane can figure out an efficient way of using the no. 10 in defensive phases.

Now, let’s assume Zidane was forced to field one of Jovic or Benzema, he’d probably opt for the Frenchman. However, let me try and make a case for the Serbian striker here. In a fully fit Real Madrid squad, you can use Eden Hazard and Martin Ødegaard to do most of the things that Karim Benzema does so well. However, when Benzema leaves his post to provide presence in the wider channels or between the lines, it takes away the instant goalscoring threat somewhat – which will not happen in a system with Jovic upfront. There is no doubt that Benzema eases the progression into the final-third by umpteenth degree, but it takes away the goalscoring threat since Benzema cannot possibly do both tasks at the same time.

Note: A major assumption is that all the players are fit and firing. Which is far away from the truth since Ødegaard and Hazard are yet to gain full match fitness, let alone the quality at this time. In which case, Benzema is not only the best forward in the team, he also makes the whole structure function.

Has Jovic been a Failure?

Let’s move to the big question now: Has the Luka Jovic deal proven out to be a failure? If you are looking for a short answer: We don’t have enough sample size to answer this question. However, if you were to break it down, it would come down to two things.

1. What have been the reasons for this failure?

2. Why was Jovic signed in the first place?

The first point has been highlighted in the initial part of this article.

The second part involves some hypothesis. Which brings us to my real issue: Why was Jovic even signed?

There could be multiple reasons for it. One of them could be to snatch him away from the competition. When we are talking about the elites of the football world, many footballing decisions are taken just to make sure that any direct competitor isn’t able to benefit from the situation. Since the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United – among others – in signing the Serbian striker, it could be possible that Real Madrid signed him just to keep him away from a direct rival.

The other reason could be that the Jovic signing was the first step towards a different style of play – which never got completed. In other words, Real Madrid got the timeframe right in their minds, but they weren’t helped by some uncontrollable circumstances. The shift to a new style would involveed another player who can effectively provide depth and as highlighted here by Siddharth Ramsundar, that certain someone isn’t here, and Jovic is into his second season at the Spanish capital already.

To sum it up, Jovic has struggled so far for Los Blancos. But it wasn’t exactly surprising – In fact, you need to go no further than this scouting report by Managing Madrid at the time when Luka Jovic was signed, hinting at potential difficulties in displacing Benzema as the no. 1 choice for Zidane. The clash in the styles of Frankfurt and Madrid was probably too big for Jovic to get accustomed to. But this does not mean that Jovic has become a bad footballer all of a sudden. I am convinced that he will be able to reproduce his best spell in the right system, the only question is that whether the Real Madrid management and faithful give him the patience he needs.

Bonus: Here is a small clip of Luka Jovic… smiling. Yeah, he used to do that thing.