This blog was originally posted on Jacek Kulig’s tremendous website, which you can access and support here.
A decade ago, Serbia was a country known for its defenders. Nowadays, it’s probably easier for a neutral to name three famous Serbian attacking players than it is to name as many well known defenders. Football is cyclical, however, and recently one talented defender has emerged from the Serbian league, Strahinja Eraković. A 21-year-old centre-back who is a regular for Red Star Belgrade, a bigger achievement than many may realize.
Came through the youth academy
Eraković joined Red Star as a 9-year-old, after having been scouted in a game against them. He went through the entire youth academy and played his first year of senior football for Red Star’s satellite team: FK Grafičar. A season later, at the age of 19, he made his debut for the club he’s supported since he was a child. Even though only a year and half year has passed since then, it’s been a long road, with many ups and downs.
In what was only his third start for the club, Eraković got to face Red Star’s eternal rivals, Partizan. An extremely high pressure game that makes it seem like lives are at stake, and not just 3 points. One poor pass, followed by a tackle that put a Partizan player in front of goal, and Eraković’s stock plummeted faster than the Dow Jones during a banking crisis. Dejan Stanković, Red Star’s manager, did what any good coach would do: he stuck by his youngster. Even if that same kid was a step too late a few days later versus Hoffenheim. To make matters even worse, Eraković suffered a serious injury just a few months after that. One that would mean the end of his first season in the senior squad.
The ideal mentor
The new season also meant some new faces at the club. One of them, Aleksandar Dragović. A man who had featured in 29 games for Bayer 04 Leverkusen the season before, and who was a starter for Austria at the European Championship. How did Red Star sign such a player in his prime, you ask? Because Dragović – much like Eraković – is a fan of the club, and his grandfather’s greatest wish was to see him wear the red and white stripes. It also meant that Eraković now had the ideal mentor. A withdrawn leader, one with a very positive mindset and the experience to match.
Came a long way
The Serbian league has a bonus rule, which means that one U21 has to start. Eraković, a right-footed centre-back, was asked to play as right- or even left-back, to fill in the gap at the start of the season. But as the season progressed, so did Strahinja. He became a reliable player. The drops in concentration, that were a regular occurrence a year before, were now a rarity. It didn’t take long before Stanković realized Eraković was the second best centre-back at the club. The ultimate reward came in the form of the captains’ armband, which he was allowed to wear against Ludogorets and Metalac.
It’s in one-on-one defending where Eraković shines. He has a light frame and is reasonably fast and agile for a defender. His aggressive nature and defensive prowess allow him to win 74% of his defensive duels, and his anticipation is already very good for a young defender.
Style of play
With Red Star often playing on the front foot, the centre-backs are left exposed and have to do plenty of one-on-one defending. It’s there where Eraković shines. He has a light frame and is reasonably fast and agile for a defender. His aggressive nature and defensive prowess allow him to win 74% of his defensive duels, and his anticipation is already very good for a young defender. Eraković also has a good jump on him and is becoming a serious aerial threat.
Room for improvement
He’s far from a finished product however and will have to keep working on his positioning and tactical discipline, as he has a tendency to be too aggressive at times, stepping in, where he should stand his ground instead. If he can improve his composure and technique, he has the potential to become a solid ball playing centre-back in the future. Nevertheless, his progress over the last eight months has been impressive. The big games in particular were the ones where he stood out. The redemption derby versus Partizan (2-0), the decisive Europa League group game against Braga (1-1) and the knock-out match against Rangers (2-1).
Dealing with pressure
There’s a major difference between being a talented player at Vojvodina, Čukarički or at the big two. The constant pressure, the hype, but also the ruthless backlash when things go wrong. Red Star are a team where there is no room for slip-ups. The league leaders have only dropped points in 4 out of 29 games this season. The poor financial situation, along with the burden of major contracts at the club, make winning the title a must. Under these circumstances, it’s extremely hard for youngsters to break through. However, Strahinja managed to do just that, showing incredible mental resilience and a hunger to succeed.
Since Red Star literally live off the sales of talented youngsters, it’s expected that Eraković will leave within a maximum timeframe of a year and a half. Ideally, he’d stay one or two more years and really cement his status within the club. If he does move, however, a transfer to a mid-table side from La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga would be preferable, as would a move to one of the top teams from the Netherlands or Belgium. That way, he’d get the time and space to adjust to a higher pace and gradually develop. In the long run, I see him as a mainstay in a Europa League side in one of the top 5 leagues.
Given time and patience, he could become an important part of the defensive puzzle for Serbia.
World Cup dreams
Another interesting prospect is the upcoming World Cup. With Serbia’s defensive frailties, the chances of a call-up are increasing. One thing that gives him an advantage is his suitability to play in a back three, Serbia’s system right now. However, don’t expect him to be the answer to their problems just yet. Given time and patience, he could become an important part of the puzzle. For now, just making the squad would give him an enormous boost and an experience to grow from.
Photos taken from nu.nl & feyenoordpings.nlTonight, Rotterdam, and a large chunk of the Netherlands, will be glued to their television screens. After just over twenty years, fans of Feyenoord, the Dutch sleeping giant, will be able to watch their club take on AS...