Milan Badelj: Croatia's 'other' midfielder who'd fit in well at Tottenham
It’s hard for any footballer to stand out when they’re playing next to Luka Modric. Germany pass-master Toni Kroos just about manages it for Real Madrid, after all. Spare a thought, then, for Milan Badelj, who throughout Euro 2016 has been tasked with providing the defensive cover in a Croatian midfield infused with creative talent.
While Modric has gambolled about the pitch with an almost whimsical air, spraying beautifully weighted passes with the inside and outside of his right foot, Badelj has done his business away from the limelight. Pale, stick thin and playing with a slight hunch, he has an ungainly appearance. But behind the façade is a cerebral, elegant and composed central midfielder who is reportedly interesting Tottenham among others.
He manoeuvred the ball well to orchestrate his team’s moves from deep, completing 42 of his 50 attempted passes, while defensively he was pivotal, winning four tackles and making three blocks and interceptions each
On Tuesday night, Croatia faced Spain in a battle for top spot in Group E at Euro 2016. The game, though, didn’t seem like an even contest before kick-off. Croatia had just dropped crucial points to the Czech Republic, throwing away a 2-0 lead to draw following crowd disruption as flares were thrown onto the pitch in protest against the country's football federation. And even if Ante Cacic’s side could successfully hurdle that mental barrier, they still had to face Spain without Modric.
With their star man ruled out through injury and a number of other key players like Marcelo Brozovic and Mario Mandzukic absent from the starting lineup, it was clear that an uphill task awaited Croatia.
Badelj, their midfield protector, looked set to suffer more than most. He spent much of the first half effectively chasing and harrying but, as his team-mates grew into the game, soon found himself acting as a midfield fulcrum. With more time on the ball, he began to show some of his underrated technical capabilities.
Croatia went on to win 2-1 thanks to goals from Nikola Kalinic and Ivan Perisic, with Badelj standing out in defensive midfield. He manoeuvred the ball well to orchestrate his team’s moves from deep, completing 42 of his 50 attempted passes, while defensively he was pivotal, winning four tackles and making three blocks and interceptions each.
At home in Florence
Badelj’s ability to marry flair with function is nothing new to Fiorentina fans. The 27-year-old joined the club in August 2014 for a modest £3 million fee after two excellent seasons with Hamburg in the Bundesliga and, after a slow start to his Viola career – he spent much of the first half of his debut season in Italy on the bench – Badelj began to star after the appointment of Paulo Sousa as head coach last summer.
Fiorentina were surprise Scudetto contenders in the early portion of 2015/16, with their 4-1 demolition of then-unbeaten Inter at the San Siro last September putting them top of Serie A for the first time since 1999. More than the results, the bold and enthralling style of play Sousa implemented caught the eye, and Badelj was key to the Portuguese’s tactics.
“He has improved a lot, as he is understanding more and more his position,” Sousa said of his midfield director. “He likes to play the ball, to be involved in moves, and also helps us to keep control of the game in a very important role.”
Eventually, Fiorentina’s title tilt was halted: opponents began to negate the fluent passing combinations of Sousa’s 3-4-2-1 system by sitting deep, congesting space between the lines and steadfastly refusing to press. The Viola’s play became stultified and ineffective but, while many other individuals lost their form, Badelj continued to prove an invaluable influence.
His sophisticated touch has been perfect at the centre of the attractive – if idealistic – style of football preached by Sousa, which seems at home amid the stunning architecture of Florence. But while the player has settled neatly into his surroundings, his agent Dejan Joksimovic has persistently talked of a move away. “There are top European clubs who are ready to make important offers for Badelj,” he told Corriere Fiorentino. “There will be important news after the Euros. But at the moment it’s hard to see a future for Milan in purple.”
Pochettino, Spurs and rotation
He is a calm enforcer, and his combination of culture and grit epitomises the Tottenham side that Pochettino has constructed over the last two years
Tottenham are seeking to strengthen their squad ahead of their return to the Champions League next season. Mauricio Pochettino is a fan of rotation, something evidenced in the Europa League last season, where he rested key first-team members including Kyle Walker, Mousa Dembele and Harry Kane for a trip to Dortmund in the last 16. In this vein, the stoic Argentine will want to enhance his midfield options, and Badelj could be an ideal recruit.
Pochettino’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system saw Dembele and Eric Dier assume the central midfield roles last season. Their positions required them to provide coverage for the full-backs when they ventured forward in attacks, ensuring stability when in possession and efficient circulation of the ball. Victor Wanyama is reportedly close to signing from Southampton in a move that would secure good backup for the more robust Dier, though Dembele is in need of an alternate of near-equal experience and quality.
Perhaps the most important trait that makes Badelj the sort of player Pochettino should pursue is his tactical intelligence. Positionally aware, the Croat knows where to be and how to use his body to repel and diffuse opposition attacks. He is a dogged defensive shield when needs be, though he also possesses quick feet, refined technique and a smooth passing game. He is a calm enforcer, and his combination of culture and grit epitomises the Tottenham side that Pochettino has constructed over the last two years.
With a contract that runs until 2018, Badelj will come at a cost – reportedly somewhere from £8-12 million. That, however, is small change for a club with Champions League football on the horizon and ambitions of establishing themselves as a permanent part of the Premier League’s top four. Indeed, the only thing standing between Tottenham and the player’s signature may turn out to be competition, with Italian giants Roma also said to be lurking.
When Croatia play Portugal in their last 16 clash on Saturday, most eyes will be fixated on the returning Modric or Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic. The Vatreni’s ‘other’ midfielder, though, is starting to attract attention – and very soon Spurs fans may be getting an even closer look at him.