The beast within: could any Premier League boss tame Mario Mandzukic?
English audiences might remember Mario Mandzukic's maiden goal for Croatia. It came as consolation in the 1-4 thrashing they'd been put through by Fabio Capello's side at Maksimir Stadium – the game which saw one of the strongest England performances in the last decade, but also the first ever competitive home defeat for Croatia (it had also been their only one until this year, when their impressive previous record was ruined by both Scotland and Belgium).
On 10 September 2008, Mandzukic came on after 73 minutes and immediately made an impression. Upon his first touch, Ashley Cole tried to wrestle him for possession, but the 6ft 1in forward shook him off with such ferocity that it looked as if the visitors' left-back was trying to mount a moving vehicle and failed, bouncing off it instead. Five minutes later, the 22-year old forward sprinted through the entire England half unopposed, picked up a pass from Darijo Srna and stretched his awkwardly long legs to drive the ball under David James.
These were the signs of things to come. Mandzukic, who had drawn early interest from the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, was at the time on the brink of getting a starting position in the national team, and was particularly eager to show his worth on a bigger stage. And when he's in that mode, he's dangerous not only to the opposing defences, but to everyone around him.
A prime example of that was his latest match for Croatia, when he went from hero to a potential tragic figure in just 11 minutes. Having opened the scoring against Iceland in the return leg of the World Cup play-off, he quickly got sent off for recklessly planting his studs into an opponent's thigh at full speed.
Mario gets 'eager' quite a lot, mind. As his Croatia team-mate Milan Badelj once said, "He's like an animal" – an observation intended as a compliment. "An incredibly strong, enduring animal." His strange build, enormous natural fitness and stamina make him an idiosyncratic player: there's no one quite like him at the top level.
In a way, he's perhaps an inversion of the 'false nine' concept: spearheading attacks, rather than coming from behind; driving defenders back rather than trying to lure them forward; great in the air but not so much on the ground; physical rather than technical.
And yet he's a highly unconventional striker, because much of his value lies not in the goals scored (though he does score them – 11 in 22 appearances this season), but in his defensive work, heavily pressing high up and opening spaces for the midfield.
But Mandzukic wasn't always the mean pressing machine that he is these days. After spending most of his career as either a winger or second striker, it was only at Bayern, aged 26, that he was permanently given the centre-forward role with instructions to chase down opponents like his life depended on it. At Wolfsburg, he got into conflict with the notoriously physically demanding coach Felix Magath, who accused him of not training hard enough, as well as for his lack of defensive effort.
"He's so fit that I think he could play two back-to-back high tempo games without stopping even for a minute," Magath said. "But no coach can tame him."
He could play two back-to-back games without stopping for a minute, but no coach can tame him"
During the 2011/12 Bundesliga season, Mandzukic had been portrayed as reluctant, arrogant and easily agitated. Media reports said he enjoyed taunting the younger players in training, waiting for them to collect all the balls at the end of the session only to fire them at the goal again. In the end, Wolfsburg put him on the transfer list and Magath said they would "accept any fair offer" – they had had enough and wanted rid of him.
When Bayern Munich signed Mandzukic for €13M, everyone thought that, despite his strong performances at the Euro 2012, he'd just be a cover for the prolific goalscorer Mario Gomez. But after Gomez got injured, another Mario emerged, taking his chance and establishing himself as a first-choice striker.
Jupp Heynckes succeeded where even the dictatorial Magath had failed: he managed to not only tame Mandzukic, but harness him, using his strengths in an optimal manner. In 2012/13, the striker excelled, finishing on a high note by scoring in the Champions League final.
Under Guardiola, however, Mandzukic's status is coming into question. While being aware of what his atypical striker can do for him, the Catalan genius has occasionally been experimenting instead with Thomas Müller, the 'space interpreter' – or the 'evasive nine', as German hipster tactical website Spielverlagerung called him. With Mario Götze finally fully fit and slaloming freely through defences, as he did this week in the Champions League match against CSKA Moscow, Bayern now also have an option of a more typical false nine.
Last weekend's Der Klassiker might have been the turning point, as the introduction of Götze instead of Mandzukic changed the on-field balance and the run of play dramatically, with Bayern forging a comfortable 0-3 win after the switch.
And if the reports of Robert Lewandowski coming to Allianz Arena from next season are true (which they appear to be) the Croatian, now already 27, could well find himself the third-choice striker in Bavaria: something he surely wouldn't take very well. It's becoming increasingly likely that Bayern could be prepared to let him go in the summer and Mandzukic has recently been linked to a move to Juventus.
But he could just as easily be a realistic transfer target for top Premier League clubs. Pretty much any of them could use his terrific energy and work rate and Mandzukic does seem like the kind of player who could do well in English football. But that possibility also begs the key question: which manager would do best in trying to tame the beast?