Liverpool’s need to strengthen in the summer is clear, particularly in defence. The latest name to be linked with the club is Serbian Central Defender Nikola Milenković.
This week @FiorentinaNews & @SkySportsDE have reported interest in the defender from the Reds. With apparent interest from Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United too, the competition for his signature will be strong this summer.
Milenković is currently playing for Serie A side Fiorentina, who are struggling this season in 14th place.
His career began at local club Partizan Belgrade. After making a boyhood dream come true – scoring a winner against rivals Red Star in the last game of the season – he joined La Viola for €5.10 million in 2017.
Since then he’s just kept progressing. Now 23 years old, he seems ready for the next step. The Italian side are under new ownership and know that selling the Serbian will allow them to fund another rebuild. With Jürgen Klopp’s side in need of defensive reinforcements, we take a look at how he’d fit into Liverpool’s side.
Nikola Milenković is a mountain of a man. At 6ft 4in and a half, he usually stands above on the pitch. It will come as no surprise then, that one of his strengths is his aerial ability. This season he has won an incredible 80.4% of aerial duels (for context, Virgil van Dijk won 81% of his in 2019/20). He is arguably the best player in the air in Italy, coming 5th in percentage won but with far more volume than his competition. This is something that is crucial to Liverpool’s side. This season has been evident that they struggle against the more physical teams (see Brighton & Burnley at home).
The Serbian is also strong in defending against the dribble. This is something he has evidently worked on this season, seeing his success rate going from 47.2% last season to 77.8% in this one. Defending against the dribble has been something that the Reds have struggled with this season. Liverpool’s best defender against the dribble has been Joël Matip at 62.5%. Milenković has also been commended for his strong positional awareness. In the 2018 World Cup he was generally viewed as Serbia’s Player of the Tournament. His positional play was highlighted as one of the reasons people were so impressed with him. For a team that are too often caught sleeping this season, he could be both a long and short term solution.
One area of concern is that he isn’t strong in pressuring the opposition. With just a 30.7% success rate this season, he falls well short of Liverpool’s current options. Pressure is a fundamental part of Klopp’s system. If Milenković was to be the long term option for Liverpool, this is something he would have to drastically improve.
Attack & In Possession
It’s evident – no more so than this season – that Liverpool’s defenders have to be more than just that. They have to be the first line of attack and a vital part of the teams’ build-up play. It’s arguable that this is just as important as how good of a defender they are when assessing targets. In terms of possession of the football, Milenković is a very competent player. He completes 88% of his passes in total. More importantly for Liverpool, he completes 80.2% of his long passes – albeit at a lesser rate than the Reds current options. Long passes are a key factor in Liverpool’s build-up play. It allows them to beat the press and release Mo Salah & Sadio Mané before opposition defences can adjust. It’s something that has been missing with Joe Gomez & van Dijk out this season.
The Fiorentina defender also has a goalscoring threat, particularly from set-pieces. In his 120 games for the Tuscan club, he’s scored 10 goals. Most of these come from headers (not a surprise when he towers over most players). Liverpool have gone from the best team in the league at set-pieces (17 last season) to mediocre (ninth place in the league). While the Reds have clearly missed Van Dijk in this department, Milenković can add an extra threat from Trent Alexander-Arnold & Andy Robertson’s deliveries.
Milenković & Liverpool: A Good Fit?
On the surface, Nikola Milenković and Liverpool Football Club look like a good match. He offers aerial ability, strength against the dribble and positional awareness in defence. These are all things that have been noticeably lacking for the Reds in 2021. Combine this with his above-average passing ability and goalscoring threat and the Serbian could be the ideal fit. He also offers tactically flexibility and has played in both three and four-man defences.
He’s also been asked to play right back on multiple occasions and is more than capable there. This may even allow the Belgrade born defender and Trent Alexander-Arnold to form a strong partnership, as he will understand better than most central defenders how to cover the right-hand side when Alexander-Arnold pushes up.
Milenković is a strong character too. He moved from his hometown at 19 years of age to Italy – the home of defending. He has improved year on year since joining Serie A and starred for his country in a World Cup at 21. Making the step up again seems like a natural progression.
Moving to a club as big as Liverpool might phase a lot of players, but it’s highly unlikely it would be the case for the Serbian.
With fierce competition for his signature, Fiorentina will want a bidding war for their prize defender. His estimated value is around £25 million (transfermarkt.com) and his Cesare Prandelli’s men will likely want at least £40 million to secure his signature. It remains to be seen whether the interest is genuine but one thing is for sure, he has the talent and attitude to shine at Anfield.