11th of July, 2018. Croatia reaches the Final of the World Cup by defeating England 2-1. A country with a population of just four million has done the unthinkable. However, the incredible work in the background began decades ago. As a result of the systemic investment in youth academies, the country has created world-known talents with the likes of Real Madrid star Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mateo Kovacic. In this upcoming series of scout reports, I will put young players of the Croatian First League under the spotlight, starting with Mihael Zaper.
NK Osijek is a club that not only followed the national tendency on how to develop talents, but was leading it. They set up their youth academy in 1982 and it provided the first step to many skilled players. The most well-known among them, Davor Suker, was undoubtedly the best Croatian player of his generation. Nowadays the club has a strong financial background meaning they can put more focus on youth development.
Zaper climbed up the academy ladder to the top. Finally, the 21-year-old right-footed central midfielder became a regular starter at the end of last season and he stayed there for good. In this tactical analysis, I will go through his role within the team, his traits including his strengths and potential areas of improvement.
Manager Ivica Kulesevic likes to play with three midfielders either in a 4-1-4-1 or in a 3-5-2 formation. In front of them, the wingers position themselves fairly narrowly, giving way to the electric full-backs. The top scorer of the league, Mirko Maric, often drops deep, dragging an opposition centre-back with him. This creates space behind the backline but simply overloads the centre of the field.
To avoid congestion, only the two versatile central midfielders – usually Laszlo Kleinheisler and Marin Pilj or Dmytro Lopa, join the attacks. Behind them, Zaper covers up any possible counter-attacks with the two centre-backs. From there he rarely contributes to the attacking movement. He averages 36 pass attempts when used as a defensive midfielder compared to the 48 when he plays more advanced under Kulesevic.
And this is an important metric when building a case for him in the analysis. Due to the basic principles in tactics mentioned above, he is often restricted to simple passes and holding his position which gives us average statistical data. However, when the three midfielders rotate their positions within the game, he turns into an attacking threat and a player worth watching.
Patience is key
Zaper is a tall and elegant player who always thinks twice before passing. What he lacks in agility, he makes up for in his vision and off-the-ball movements. He drifts around in space superbly, often away from the ball just to exploit holes in the opposition midfield. He constantly looks around the field, always aware of his surroundings and positioning of his teammates. Thanks to his patience and intelligence, he can find himself in prime position effortlessly even when the attacking development doesn’t focus on his side of the pitch. If allowed, he will also join in counter attacks with adequate pace.
As I mentioned in the short analysis of Osijek, Maric (or Antonio Mance if two strikers are on the pitch) drops deep or wide to make himself available. Here is a perfect example:
The untapped potential
Zaper passes the ball around comfortably and the team likes to build up from the back while keeping the ball on the ground. His role in the build-up is to link the defensive line to the midfield. Since there are at least two playmakers in front or next to him, he tries to get them in play as soon as possible. The statistical data reveals that even on the opposition half, his passing rate reaches almost 90% and exceeds 88% when we look at forward passes. In smaller playing areas his first step quickness enables him to play one-two passes to get behind the midline otherwise he tends to avoid dribbling past defenders.
When reaching the attacking third, he shows the ability to provide key passes to his teammates behind the defensive line. He reads the game well and many times these passes are so well executed, they make you wonder if he should be utilised more in front.
The same goes for long balls. The scout report showed that he doesn’t need to be a playmaker as long as the two central midfielders can be brought into play. However, against a high pressing team or a high offside trap, his vertical balls could be the key to open up defences. Stats don’t lie and support this idea very much: in this season 77.4% of his total long passes were accurate, and ten out of ten through balls found his teammate inside the box.
Finally, we cannot avoid mentioning Zaper’s valuable shooting technique. As he usually joins the attack in the second wave, he stays on the edge of the box and could threaten the goal either with the right foot or the left one. 0.59 shots per 90 minutes is not a striking number, but considering the 70% rate hitting the target from outside of the box, we can realise his potential.
In the beginning, I said that this scout report will also include some potential areas of improvement where Zaper could up his game. One particular issue that stands out in his case as a defensive midfielder is attacking the ball. He needs to be more firm, more aggressive to the ball-carrier in order to break up opponents’ attacking moves. He tends to shy away from tackles and possible fouls which can hurt the team when he is trusted to do the dirty work. The data shows that he lost 61.1% of his defensive duels against central midfielders, and the figure jumps to 75.6% when he was one-on-one against them.
However, the defensive system Osijek plays suits his style and he doesn’t need to attack the ball or the man directly. Rather, the team features zonal marking as their primary type of defence. They don’t press high, usually starting to go after the ball at the half-line. In this system, Zaper is man-oriented, constantly shadowing players who move between the lines but doesn’t follow them deep into opposition territory. He anticipates player movements well and intercepts 4.67 balls per 90 minutes, which is a strong number by itself.
If he dreams about stepping up to a stronger league, Zaper himself will have to get stronger. Despite his height, he is often pushed out of the way and has a hard time in physical games. If he were to spend a bit more time in the gym, he may be able to go up against anybody.
Zaper is a raw talent heading in the right direction. With the vision and anticipation he possesses, he can become a valuable asset in the 1. HNL and then maybe move onto a bigger challenge. Until then, Osijek could be the perfect team for him. In this scout report, I tried to show that his attacking potential is limited in the defensive midfielder position while his lack of agility and physicality also promotes the idea that he should play higher.
The team could benefit from his off-the-ball movements, clever passes, and well-placed shots more than his current stats would suggest. If Kulesevic finds a midfielder with a true defensive mindset on the market or through the academy, Zaper could bring consistency and stability to the midfield. Already in those games where he had more freedom on the pitch, he displayed his potential and I believe there is more to come in the future.