The Croatian First League came to a sudden end after 26 rounds. Behind Dinamo Zagreb, a tight competition formed for the Champions League Qualifiers place with HNK Rijeka in second, Lokomotiva Zagreb in third and Hajduk Split in fourth. Three points behind them, NK Osijek was ready for a late challenge for the Europa League. However, the lockdown temporarily halted their plans and left mixed feelings about their campaign amongst the fans.
In this tactical analysis, we will focus on Osijek’s Petar Bockaj, the 23-year-old left-footed talent. After his troubles off the pitch, he began to repay the trust from the management and grew into one of the side’s prime creators. Here is how he performed this season.
The season by the numbers
Bockaj played 1124 minutes in the league in 15 games. He started 13 of them and showed up all over the field. He enjoys himself the most as a left wing-back, although Ivica Kulesevic occasionally counts on him as a left-winger and as a right-winger, too. His production depends on his position but in a relatively small amount of time, he still managed to score twice and hand out two assists as well. His underlying statistics were outstanding and would suggest that he should be utilised more by the club.
A dangerous left foot
In attack, Bockaj builds on his agility and crossing ability. We can see above that his overall attacking contribution cannot be underestimated. As the calculated percentile ranks for different values show he is way above the average Croatian league player (the median line at 50). With his 8.01 successful attacking actions per 90 minutes, he tops the chart. Another interesting statistical aspect which can describe Bockaj well is his average passing distance. The 23.13 m can be considered outstanding when the league average stands at 17.8 m. These two metrics reflect on the tactics of Osijek as well.
Osijek always aims to expand the field which often leaves greater space between the players, therefore dribbles and more direct passes are encouraged. It became a common sight this season that he dribbles past his marker and crosses inside the box, doing it all thanks to his above-average versatility and quick thinking. He bombs in 6.96 crosses per 90 minutes which was absolute top in Croatia, no one attempted more than him in 2019-20. Just to make a distant comparison, Liverpool right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold has 7.06 crosses per 90 by his name.
While he is dangerous in open play, we cannot avoid mentioning his set-piece duties as well. His cross number is boosted by the team’s corner kick routine as Bockaj is used as an option in corners from the left, often coming short and putting in out-swinging balls immediately towards the six-yard box (0.9 from all crosses).
Unsurprisingly, the numerous attempted long balls result in below-average completion rates when we talk about his presence in the last third of the pitch. To become an elite wing-back, he needs to improve his final third passing accuracy from 60.2% and while he drastically has to get better with his forward passes as well (63.8%). The numbers suggest that he might enjoy playing in a more withdrawn position where he has more time on the ball and can pick out his teammates.
Since the analysis discussed his rather straightforward and direct approach on the ball, his shooting skill also deserves recognition. Despite his playing position, he doesn’t shy away from trying out goalkeepers from the distance. He averages 2.29 shots per game and it could be considered as a weapon against low defensive blocks especially that 14 out of all his 30 shots hit the target.
An all-rounder in the midfield
If his deep crosses and far away shots weren’t indicative for his bravery, this chart should be as telling as the previous statistics. The slices represent opponents against which Bockaj played at least 60 minutes during this campaign. The bigger slices indicate two games (one home, one away), hence the increment in all passes. Without any data, the chart presents to the eyes that Bockaj is not the kind of player who backs off from developing the play. He likes to operate with forward passes (15.4) above all and rather avoids lateral (16.8) or backwards passes (5.1). This 41% ratio may not seem high in total but it puts him uncontested first in the 1.HNL.
Not only does he aims to advance with every possession, but he also does it exceptionally well. It is rare to see a more perfect and complete passing radar when comparing players within their domestic league. With the same approach as the first chart, this one shows Bockaj’s relative rank in the 1.HNL. His 0.35 expected assists per game put him in the second place while the 0.9 key passes made by him proves he has excellent vision. The 12.1 progressive passes confirm the theory that he thrives deeper from the opponent’s goal. The 15.4 forward passes and the eight in the final third are the cherries on top of his attacking movement.
Getting the job done
We could fear that he may neglect his defensive duties in light of his massive contribution to the offensive phase of play. Luckily, this is not the case. He has great closing speed when he wants to limit the opponent. He engages well in the pressing to block long balls attempted by the defenders. His positioning is also key to recover balls after defensive challenges.
In the middle third, the previously mentioned vision allows him to intercept as many as 7.5 per the opposition’s 30 possessions (4.9 per 90). This is a key concept when considering defensive stats as we can compare players from possession-oriented teams more efficiently. Again, his speed is key to close down passing lanes and prevent dangerous attacking movements on the left flank.
His presence in the defensive third can be considered as hectic. He only attempts 0.38 tackles per opposition 30 (0.25 per game). The reason for this, stated above in the analysis, is that he rather positions himself between two players than directly attacking the ball-carrier. When he does, he executes the movement perfectly with 100% success rate which is rare to see from a defender. As a negative aspect of his game, he has a below-average vertical jump. It is in the team’s best interest to pair him up with a strong centre-back in the air. As his aerial duel win rate sits at 35.7%, this is something that has to be addressed in the defensive line elsewhere.
In this scout report, we examined Petar Bockaj’s current season with Osijek. We got to know a brave player who runs up and down the left-wing no matter where we put him. He bombs an incredible amount of crosses inside the box and he could be a valuable asset to any team which builds on direct balls from the wings. He possesses great shooting technique and never thinks twice about attempting a shot. As he often appears in the midfield, he is a creator of his team, always attempting to advance the attack before choosing any safer options. His ball distribution, as well as his passing range, is incredible, something that could be taken into account for any bigger clubs. Finally, we took a brief look at his defensive contribution, which he often brings forward up to the final third. His vision not only helps him when picking out his options but also works well to intercept balls from the opponent.
He has the ability and the talent to play in a more demanding league, for example, the English League One but he has questions looming over his character. If he can convince his potential suitors that he left his old self behind, he could be a bargain at his current price. Certainly, his situation will be interesting to check back on when football and the transfer market restarts again.