The rise of Luka Jovic

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    By now even the most casual of football fans will have heard about him, while Football Manager enthusiasts have known about him for years and are waiting to see whether he turns out to be another Maxim Tsigalko or if he’s actually the real deal. We’re talking about the young Serbian striker sensation Luka Jovic, having a breakout season in the German Bundesliga and being chased by some of Europe’s finest teams.

    Jovic, an ethnic Serb, was born and raised in a remote village right next to the Bosnian city of Bijeljina, close to the Serbian border. When he was 11, he was scouted by former European Champions Red Star Belgrade and was invited for a trial game. Jovic made an immediate impression as the club was eager to add him to their ranks. However, not much later following a misunderstanding his father nearly succumbed to the offers of Red Star’s biggest rivals: Partizan. They offered his son a much better deal and things spiraled out of control quickly. A meeting was set up where former Aston Villa striker Savo Milosevic, a Partizan legend and cousin of the Jovic’s played a key role. With all the pressure mounting on young Luka he told him that he was the most important person here and that the decision was all his. Luka broke out in tears and told Milosevic that he only wanted to play for Red Star, his childhood love, and so it was decided.

    The next five years Jovic was part of the youth academy at Red Star and continued to make an impact to the point where he was considered one of the best youngsters to ever come through the ranks at this historic club. So much so that he made his professional debut for the side at the age of 16 and as an addition to his growing reputation he actually managed to score his first senior goal within two minutes of being brought on. The game against Vojvodina ended 3-3, but Jovic had already entered the history books by breaking Dejan Stankovic’s record of being the youngest goalscorer in a competitive match for the club.

    The following season saw Jovic getting more and more playing time and in the end he was able to take part in 22 league games in which he added another six goals to his tally. The young striker sadly got injured towards the end of the season and missed out on the U20 World Cup in New Zealand where Serbia somewhat surprisingly managed to win the title against Brazil in nail biting final. As the 2015/16 season rolled on this was supposed to be Jovic’s definite breakout season at Red Star and he started out brightly as he scored three goals in his first five games. Halfway through the season he had five in 19 games and that’s when Red Star were forced to let him go due to some shady transfer deals with the super agent Pini Zahavi.

    The Cyprus based club Apollon Limassol, with the super-agent Pini Zahavi controlling operations in the background, had bought 70% of the rights to Luka Jovic a year earlier. And when Benfica came in to make a move Red Star were ultimately helpless. The Serbian side managed to get a measly €2 million in total out of the deal, which however was much needed as the club was in dire financial straits at that time. Jovic joined Benfica in February of 2016 and so the first foreign chapter of his footballing career began.

    To say the move was not a success would be an understatement as Jovic only went on to make three senior appearances for the Portuguese giants in the following two seasons. Many started to doubt Jovic’s level of talent and his mentality and even in Serbia there were people who considered Jovic to be lethargic and lazy. That was the moment when Fredi Bobic finally saw his chance to capitalise. The former German international of Slovenian descent, a striker himself back in the day and now technical director at Eintracht Frankfurt, had been following Jovic for years. He even tried to convince him to join VfB Stuttgart at the time when Jovic was still only a youth player at Red Star. This time however he was more successful as he got the robust Serbian striker to join on a two year loan with a buyout fee of just €7 million.

    At the start of the 2017/18 season Jovic was greeted by a small Balkan colony at Frankfurt: Niko Kovac was their manager and compatriot Mijat Gacinovic and the Croatian Ante Rebic were also part of the squad. Kovac, a former Croatian international who is born and raised in Berlin is known for his discipline, immediately seemed to hit the right chords with Jovic. The young Serbian went from bench player to an impact sub within a couple of months as his reputation once again grew. Towards the end of the season he was playing regularly and ended up with eight league goals in 22 games with the best goals to minutes ratio in the entire league. Jovic’s season didn’t go unnoticed in Serbia as he managed to sneak into their final squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and even got to play a couple of minutes in Serbia’s final group stage game against Brazil.

    The following season Kovac packed up his bags and joined German giants Bayern Munich and Adi Hütter, coming off a title winning year with Young Boys in Switzerland, was signed as his replacement. The Austrian manager was immediately impressed by Jovic and he has been a mainstay in his side alongside Sebastian Haller and Ante Rebic in what has so far been one of Eintracht’s most successful seasons in their entire history. With just three games to go Frankfurt are in sitting in fourth place with a three point lead over Borussia Mönchengladbach which would give them a shot at Champions League qualification. But things haven’t just been going well domestically for the German side. In Europe they’ve recently knocked out Jovic’s former club Benfica with Jovic scoring one of the goals and set up a Europa League semi-final against Chelsea. Jovic has been one of the key factors in Frankfurt’s success as he’s contributed heavily with no less than 25 goals in 43 games in all competitions at the young age of 21. In particular, the record breaking five goal performance against Fortuna Düsseldorf went viral world wide and really put Jovic on the map.

    Growing up Jovic’s idol was Colombian striker Radamel Falcao and funnily enough Jovic’s nickname, given to him by Red Star’s controversial club director Zvezdan Terzic, is ‘the Serbian Falcao’ . And to be fair, there are a lot of similarities between the two players. Jovic coming in at 1.81 is four centimetres taller than Falcao, but surprisingly also quite a bit faster and surely at least as strong as the Colombian was at his age. The raw power of Jovic combined with his skill set is what sets him apart in today’s football. For Jovic has no weak foot, can head the ball as well as he can shoot it and is known for his excellent movement and terrific hold up play. On top of that while he can definitely still improve his passing he is fairly solid in that department and has seven assists this season to prove he’s not just a goalscorer.

    The main criticism on the pitch if there is any is that Jovic can sometimes seem absent during games. In that sense he reminds of Das Phantom, Roy Makaay, who people only tended to notice whenever he popped up to score a goal. As said earlier Jovic also has a tendency to come off as lethargic. Even his goal celebrations are usually those of a player who is as cool as a cucumber. Furthermore Jovic’s off the pitch mentality has been questioned more than once. His work ethic has never been considered his strong suit and although Niko Kovac seems to have had a positive impact on that aspect of his game Jovic will need to stay focused in order to keep his current form going. The fact that he’s recently become a father could provide another positive impulse on his mentality.

    Tactically Jovic has been part of a striker duo for the past two seasons, mainly playing alongside target man Sebastian Haller, with the creative and hard working Ante Rebic playing just behind them. While the coaching personnel has changed at Eintracht, the main formation has remained similar. Albeit with the side note that Hütter’s Frankfurt have played a more offensive variation of the 3-4-1-2, which has only been further confirmed by the club’s goal tally. Last year they’d scored 45 goals after all 34 league games, meanwhile this season they have 58 in just 31 games with 10 goals less conceded to add to it. The attractive playing style of the German club has seen them get the plaudits all over Europe and it won’t come as a surprise that their key players are being linked to some of Europe’s top teams. The front three in particular have been impressive with a total of 79 goal contributions between them.

    Real Madrid and Barcelona are reportedly the two sides that have been pursuing Jovic most out of all teams interested, but the big English sides and local giants Bayern Munich have been keeping tabs on the young Serbian as well. At Barcelona Jovic would become a back up for the ageing Luis Suarez, while at Real Madrid he’d be signed as understudy or even possible partner to Karim Benzema. Either way these teams would consider Jovic a long term investment with the ability to make an immediate impact off the bench. The transfer fee that’s being mentioned is around €60 million, which would mean a huge amount of profit for Eintracht Frankfurt who obviously did not hesitate to pay Jovic’s buyout fee of just €7 million, with an added percentage of a future sale and tied him down until 2023.

    Jovic’s father has come out and stated that despite the inquiries of Europe’s top teams his son is only focused on qualifying for the Champions League with Eintracht and would prefer to stay in Frankfurt for now. Looking at it from his perspective that would surely be the best option as he’d continue to get regular playing time on the highest level, which is crucial at his age. Fredi Bobic has confirmed that the club would love to keep Jovic on their roster, but that they are ultimately powerless when a side like Real Madrid shows up on their doorstep. In an interview with German TV channel ZDF he even added that he expects Jovic to join Los Merengues and that Jovic himself didn’t think he’d be getting enough playing time at Barcelona and therefore rejected their offer.

    Internationally Serbian national team fans rejoice at the thought of pairing up Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic with Luka Jovic as striking duo for the next decade. The country has had a long drought when it comes to offensive options as the last solid pairing they had was that of giant Nikola Zigic and his partner in crime Marko Pantelic. National team coach Mladen Krstajic has however gone with a 4-2-3-1 formation in most of his games so far and has not yet paired up the two much to the frustration of the team’s fans. Jovic did however get his first chance to start for the national team in a recent friendly against Germany. The game ended 1-1, and not surprisingly, Jovic was the goalscorer for the Serbian side.

    The next couple of weeks will be very interesting as the young striker’s confidence seems to have taken a hit by the increased attention as he’s failed to capitalise on some great chances in Frankfurt’s last three games. The team failed to win all three after an impressive six game winning streak and is now involved in a ferocious battle for that fourth spot. The following weeks will provide some insight into how Luka Jovic is able to handle pressure. Cause no matter if he stays at Eintracht or moves to a club like Real Madrid, all eyes will be pointed towards him as he transitions from a talented young player into a continental star.