Sime Vrsaljko: The flying full-back intriguing Arsenal and Barcelona

Adam Digby introduces the 23-year-old Sassuolo defender whose performances in Serie A could earn him a big move to one of Europe's elite clubs...

The 60-second story

FACT FILE

  • Date of birth: January 10, 1992
  • Place of birth: Zadar, Croatia
  • Height: 6ft
  • Position: Full-back
  • Club: Sassuolo (35 apps, 0 goals)
  • International: Croatia (14 apps, 0 goals)

While many clubs around Europe have developed a reputation for producing talented young players, few have done so with the regularity that Dinamo Zagreb have managed over the last decade. The club that once brought the likes of Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki to prominence have continued to develop young stars, with Luka Modric, former Arsenal striker Eduardo and Mario Mandzukic all having emerged from the Croatians’ youth ranks more recently. 

As that latter trio moved on, another class of young talent progressed to the first team and ensured that scouts from Europe’s top clubs remained regular visitors to the Stadion Maksimir. Mateo Kovacic – now of Real Madrid after a spell with Inter – earned a big move away, but now Sime Vrsaljko may be the Dinamo graduate most worth watching.

Picked up by the capital club before he turned 15, Vrsaljko quickly progressed through Dinamo’s various youth teams before spending a year on loan with feeder club Lokomotiva to gain first-team experience. Having begun his career in midfield, it was during this time that Vrsaljko was converted into a full-back, a role in which he would excel upon his return to Zagreb.

Modric is one of the many talents to have emerged from the Dinamo ranks

Having won four league titles and three other trophies in his homeland, the youngster ignored interest from Arsenal, Marseille and Tottenham in the summer of 2013 to instead join Serie A side Genoa. “They’re a team that gives space to young players and gives opportunities to those who want to grow,” Vrsaljko told Italian newspaper Il Seccolo XIX. “I want to play, to improve. If I went to a bigger club I probably wouldn’t have had that chance.”

Vrsaljko made 22 appearances for Genoa before moving on to Sassuolo a year later, and it's with the Neroverdi that the 23-year-old has blossomed into a truly stellar prospect. While he has again been overshadowed by his attacking team-mates, Vrsaljko is no less deserving of attention than Domenico Berardi or Nicola Sansone.

Why you need to know him

Barcelona sporting director Ariedo Braida was spotted watching the Croatian in recent weeks

Vrsaljko’s performances since joining Sassuolo have attracted major attention, with the likes of Arsenal, Juventus and Napoli reportedly keen on prising him away from the Mapei Stadium. In addition, Barcelona sporting director Ariedo Braida was spotted watching the Croatian in recent weeks and is believed to have identified him as a potential long-term replacement for Dani Alves at right-back.

Juventus have a solid relationship with Sassuolo that has enabled numerous players to move between the two clubs in recents, but the money on offer from the Premier League or Barça could well mean other sides steal a march on the Italian giants as the race for Vrsaljko’s signature intensifies. 

Vrsalijko started two of Croatia's three games at World Cup 2014

Strengths

A thoroughly modern full-back, Vrsaljko is strong, athletic and blessed with great speed and stamina that allows him to compete with the very best wingers in Serie A.

He has also proven to be a diligent defender, following tactical instructions and tracking opponents to great effect. Barcelona's Braida would have been impressed with what he saw as he took in Sassuolo’s recent meeting with Lazio: Vrsaljko contained Felipe Anderson’s threat extremely well, clocking three tackles, three interceptions and seven clearances over an eye-catching 90 minute display.

He also contributes to the attack, bursting forward to overlap Berardi and provide width whenever space appears on the right flank. He contributed three assists last term, his crossing continues to improve, while his ability to distribute the ball accurately is steadily growing.

Weaknesses

While the presence of Dario Srna has often forced Vrsaljko to play on the left for Croatia, he is much less effective on that side of the field. The 23-year-old has worked hard to ensure he cannot be targeted on crosses, improving from winning just 1.2 headers per game last term to 2.5 this time around.

His tackling could still be improved, however, with Vrsaljko having won just 51% of the challenges he has contested this term. He has received two yellow cards and a red in 10 Serie A appearances in 2015/16, and given away 2.3 fouls per game; the Croatian must quickly address his minor disciplinary issues to ensure he isn't considered a risk. 

Battling with Juventus' Paul Pogba, a future Barcelona team-mate?

They said...

For me, he needs to spend another year with us, because he is on the verge of becoming an extraordinary player

- Eusebio Di Francesco

Sassuolo boss Eusebio Di Francesco has already had a major impact on Vrsaljko’s fledgling career, giving him the time and space to grow in a 4-3-3 system that brings the best out of the player’s attributes.

“I don’t see many full-backs around that are as good as Vrsaljko,” Di Francesco told Sky Italia back in July. “He has great quality and what he needs is the continuity to play more games. For me, he needs to spend another year with us, because he is on the verge of becoming an extraordinary player and I’m convinced that next year he will be even more in demand that he is now.”

Did you know?

RATINGS

  • Shooting 5
  • Heading:7
  • Passing 7
  • Tackling 7
  • Pace 8
  • Dribbling 6
  • Creativity 5
  • Work rate 8

While they are very different players, Zadar-native Vrsaljko identified Modric – who hails from the same town – as his footballing hero. Yet he could also look to his own family for inspiration, with his father Mladen having represented NK Zadar in his own career.

“Dani Alves is the player that I most like to pattern my game on, but my Dad was a central defender,” Vrsaljko told Sky Italia. “He was the captain as well, hard and tough, just as he needed to be.”

What happens next?

“Last year big clubs wanted him,” Sassuolo sporting director Giovanni Carnevali admitted in an interview with Italian station Radio CRC back in July. “Milan liked him too, but he chose us because we believed in him and we've never had any real offer for Vrsaljko because we don't want to sell him.”

That is expected to change in either January or next summer, with the Neroverdi likely to cash in on the defender just as they did with Simone Zaza earlier this year.

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