The Croatian First League ranks among the leagues with the youngest average age in Europe (25), providing an opportunity to many Croatian youngsters. Often smaller teams will try to loan players from the bigger ones and fight against relegation. Therefore, teens with no first league experience can become, if successful, local heroes and make a name for themselves.
That is the case with Mario Cuze as well. A Dinamo Zagreb striker who began the season at NK Istra 1961 as a loanee. He established himself as a starter right away and enjoyed a prosperous spell at the club. Seven goals and three assists were enough for Dinamo to bring him back during the January transfer window and try him out in the team. This tactical analysis will focus on what type of player Cuze is and where he can improve to become a regular starter.
The 20-year-old Cuze can line up on the left-wing and in the centre-forward position. As a left-winger, he will cut inside to his right foot and often move next to another striker. As a centre-forward, he likes to drop deeper and help out in the attacking development with short combinations. Both ways, he can find success due to physical mismatches against the opposition. At 178 centimetres, he stands taller than most of the full-backs while he is quicker than most of the centre-backs. Let’s see how Ivan Prelec – Istra manager – used him in his tactics and took advantage of these mismatches.
If we take a look at Cuze’s action map, we can see where his biggest strength lies. He has tremendous stamina, getting involved everywhere. Whether he was used on the wings or up front, he moved around the pitch, actively defending, taking part in the build-up and breaking defences open.
As a left-winger
Starting the season at Istra, in the first three games, he scored six goals. He thrived under Prelec and in the team’s counter-attacking scheme. With the fluid 4-3-3 formation, the team managed to effectively catch the oppositions off guard thanks to the front three’s versatility. The decision to put Cuze near the touchline turned out to be crucial and caused troubles in the defensive lines.
In possession, he had the opportunity to roam freely on the pitch, either coming to the centre or dropping deeper on the left-wing. When he receives the ball, either he cuts inside or dribbles while always looking for a shooting opportunity.
In transition, usually Robert Peric-Komsic or Adrián Fuentes as the lone striker dropped deep, dragging his marker with him. After a simple one-two with a midfielder, the opposition’s defensive line was ruined and outnumbered by Istra attackers.
This is when Cuze’s quickness came in handy. A perfectly timed diagonal run behind the defensive line and he could be one-on-one with the keeper. We can see how he could manage to profit from Prelec’s tactics and why it works. He scored all of his goals when he lined up on the wing because he could take advantage of any mistakes in the defensive shifting and punish them in counter-attacks.
However, he can be on the giving end as well. The most dangerous balls came from him also during counter-attacks. To start the attacking movement as soon as possible, his passes were often quick and usually aimed behind the defenders. During the season he registered 1.1 smart passes and 27.6 simple passes per 90 minutes although with a 45.9% and 83.7% accuracy respectively. While this needs to be improved if he desires to be a starter at Dinamo, the figures reflect on the fast-paced and high-intensity counters that Istra created.
As a striker
The scout report has already presented what he brings to the table as a winger but truth be told, he is far from a traditional winger. The main talking point for a striker should be his physicality. At just 20, Cuze can stay on his feet against heavier centre-backs and continue to fight for the full 90 minutes. During the whole season, he engaged in over 18 duels and 3.6 aerial duels per game when he played at least 60 minutes; these are strong numbers for his age. Even if the success rate is around 46% and 53% in the air, he can keep on going all game long and disturb the opposition centre-backs.
He is a natural striker with an eye for goal. According to the heat map, he was instructed to drop deep and help out his teammates more often. He became less of a goal threat as a lone forward but he grew more as an overall player during his spell at Istra. The analysis made it clear that he can find unoccupied space and for a centre-forward, this means usually the space between the central midfielders and the two centre-backs.
As soon as he receives the ball he looks to spread it out wide and starts to sprint towards the goal. With this simple movement, he can disengage the lower line as one defender will have to run with him. This creates a gap in the midfield which can be exploited by the team, somewhat similar to how Chelsea uses deep-lying strikers to create space for their midfielders.
The explanation of mismatches ends with Cuze’s heading ability. As a lone striker, he would have struggled against taller centre-backs as the statistics also prove: he lost 70% of aerial duels against opponents 185 centimetres or higher. But Prelec explored other possibilities during the first half of the season. He sent up inside the box 190 centimetres tall Stefan Loncar meanwhile Cuze as a centre-forward could position himself on the outside shoulder of full-backs before crosses. In other occasions, Peric-Komsic could drag one or two defenders away from the far post. This allowed Cuze to attack the crosses against more favourable match-ups and win more duels inside the box.
In January, his club called him back from loan and provided him a total 127 minutes of action. One full game he played against Gorica in an interesting position. Nenad Bjelica counted him almost in the midfield, an unusual place compared to where he was in Istra. While his tendency to drop deeper can be useful in smaller teams because he can still catch up to the attacking movement later, here at Dinamo his attacking threat might get wasted until he plays this deep in the midfield.
This can be seen from the stats as well. During the game, he received more passes (51) than in any matches with Istra although the deep positioning reduced his xG to a season-low 0.02. As the picture shows below, his potential emerged in counter-attacks when his teammates opened up the defence in front of him.
This tactical analysis and scout report focused on Mario Cuze, a 20-year-old Dinamo player. We first talked about his successful loan spell at Istra and why he was a good team fit in Prelec’s team. His deep runs, understanding of space and smart, quick passes made him an effective counter-attacking threat. At the same time, he could drop deep and play through the whole pitch thanks to his outstanding stamina. However, the tactics of GNK Dinamo requires him to be a more conventional player who plays deeper and gives way to more agile attackers. He has work to do until he can establish himself as a Dinamo starter and play in the Champions League or at another club but the future is bright for this young talent.