Sergej Milinkovic-Savic: Meet the Serbian midfielder linked with Man United and Real Madrid
Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic might not be a name you have heard of just yet, but it's one you should definitely know going forward. The 23-year-old is being linked with European giants Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid after a breakout season for Lazio in which he scored 12 goals and notched three assists. Currently starring in the World Cup with Serbia, here's everything you need to know about the highly rated and just as highly coveted midfielder.
Name: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
National team: Serbia
What's all the fuss about?
Quite simply, Milinkovic-Savic is the most sought-after playmaker in Europe -- with Manchester United and Real Madrid headlining the list of clubs believed to be in hot pursuit. Reports suggest it would take around £90 million to prise him from Lazio, and if his positive start to this World Cup gathers further speed, then that price tag could yet rise further.
His blend of height, physique, technique, vision and speed would look at home in any club's colours, and he has been strongly linked with virtually every side among Europe's top tier. "If I had €100m I would buy him," former Lazio striker Pierluigi Casiraghi said earlier in June. "I like him very much, not just from today, he was immediately seen as a great player. He is unique. He is [just] 23 years old."
What he does well
All-rounders such as Milinkovic-Savic do not come around too often. He can operate in a No. 10 position or farther back, generally playing as part of a midfield three in Serie A. If playing behind a striker, as he did for Serbia against Costa Rica on Sunday, his intricate footwork -- which gets his 6-foot-4 frame out of situations from which he seemingly has no right to emerge -- can unlock the most tightly packed of defences.
Receiving the ball in a deeper position, his power and urgency can shift his side up several gears. He has also added goal scoring to his game, netting 12 in the Italian top flight last season -- many of them of the spectacular fashion.
What he can do better
It is hard to find a glaring weakness -- usually players of his type might be found wanting defensively, but Milinkovic-Savic puts the yards in there, too. He is prone to the odd rash tackle, though, and occasionally takes risks with the ball in areas others might not dream of. Last season, he made three assists in Serie A, so an improvement on that tally would go down well, too -- but his contribution to Lazio's all-around play renders that a small gripe.
He's similar to ...
There are obvious comparisons with Paul Pogba -- another tall, lavishly talented schemer who can single-handedly turbocharge a team when on top of his game. His own father, Nikola Milinkovic, was a goal-scoring, 6-foot-4 central midfielder who played for various clubs in Spain, where Sergej was born. Given that his mother, Milana Savic, was a basketball player, it is easy to see where his physical gifts come from.
How will he illuminate this World Cup?
Serbia face Switzerland in a potentially decisive Group E match on Friday, and Milinkovic-Savic has the star quality to propel them into the knockout phase. He has already been influential in Russia: It was no coincidence that, as he grew into the win over Costa Rica, Serbia did too. Milinkovic-Savic set up one clear chance for Aleksandr Mitrovic and was behind most of Serbia's most fluent moves. Even more remarkably, it was only his fifth senior cap, and his importance on the international stage will surely only grow from here.
Serbia's previous manager, Slavoljub Muslin, was relieved of his role before the World Cup despite qualifying them for Russia 2018 -- all because he could not find a way to accommodate Milinkovic-Savic's talent. That says plenty about the weight of his nation's expectations. "He has the capacity to go far," his Serbia teammate and Southampton midfielder Dusan Tadic said. "That's it. He is the future of Serbian football."
How would he improve Manchester United, Real Madrid or Juventus?
The appeal to United is obvious: Milinkovic-Savic is capable of doing the things Pogba was purchased to do but with greater regularity and added dynamism. It is hard to imagine the two operating in tandem, though Milinkovic-Savic's ease working in a deeper position -- often a problem area for United -- does not rule it out, and the prospect of these two dominating a midfield would be utterly tantalising.
Madrid's interest is pretty straightforward too: They need reinforcements in the centre, with Luka Modric turning 33 this year, and Milinkovic-Savic would be the perfect big-name signing to freshen up the serial Champions League winners.
Juventus are also in need of a bit of a facelift, as an aging squad had just enough to get over the line in Serie A. Sami Khedira (31), Blaise Matuidi (31) and Claudio Marchisio (32) aren't getting any younger, and Milinkovic-Savic, who is already a proven commodity in Serie A, would plug in nicely and bring a freshness to a squad that desperately needs some new ideas. Milinkovic's father also seems to be in favour of a Juventus move, telling Tuttosport: "He'd be great there [Juventus], and I've told him this many times. They would be the perfect club for my son. He would have the opportunity to grow and improve to reach his full maturity." Wherever he goes, Milinkovic-Savic is a difference-maker, and at just 23, the star Serb is just scratching the surface of his talent.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.