Sassuolo right-back Šime Vrsaljko is reportedly close to joining Spanish side Atlético Madrid, as manager Diego Simeone sees the 24-year old Croatian as the ideal player to provide competition for Juanfran. Simeone’s Atleti are looking to challenge on all fronts again next season, and after having already finalised the signing of Benfica starlet Nico Gaitan, Vrsaljko could be the second player moving to the Vicente Calderón this summer.
For Vrsaljko, it all started when he was picked up by Dinamo Zagreb back in 2006, leaving the NK Zadar Academy for the prestigious and renowned Dinamo Zagreb one. From football’s early days onward, the capital club have produced some highly rated players like Robert Prosinecki and Zovinimir Boban, while – more recently – Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Mario Mandzukic all emerged from the youth ranks.
In 2010, after the youngster gained some first-team experience at feeder club Lokomotiva, Vrsaljko made his debut for Dinamo and went on to win the league. Having played as a right-midfielder before, he had been transformed into a very respected full-back by the summer of 2013 - having won another three league titles in his homeland. This earned him a transfer to Serie A side Genoa.
Continuing to operate as a right-back, Vrsaljko made his name known in Italy with 22 appearances and one assist. Consequently, a year later, he moved to Sassuolo, where he really attracted major attention and celebrated Sassoulo’s first ever Europa League qualification following the 2015/16 campaign.
A modern full-back, Vrsaljko contributes to the attack in the same manner as Juanfran does: bursting forward to overlap and provide width on the right flank. Given his past as a right-sided midfielder, Vrsaljko heavily relies on his pace to open up new passing lanes and space for others to exploit. This is something that Barcelona midfielder and Croatian teammate Ivan Rakitic also highlighted in a recent interview with Vecernji List: “Vrsaljko has exceptional stamina and is very quick. He is ready to fight for every ball, even those ten metres off the pitch. He would be a great solution for Atletico.”
At Sassoluo, Vrsaljko’s style of play allowed Domenico Berardi enough space within the right half-space to exploit. As a result, Vrsaljko often linked up elegantly with the talented Italian, which saw Vrsaljko recording four assists last season. Only, Berardi (6) and midfielder Alfred Duncan (5) produced more assists than Vrsaljko, which emphasizes his impact offensively.
Defensively speaking, his pace allows Vrsaljko to stand his ground in one-on-ones, as highlighted by the fact that he is only dribbled past 0.5 times per 90 minutes. However, with Vrsaljko having won just 50% of the tackles he produced last season, his tackling could still be improved. Also, his minor disciplinary issue is something that certainly has to be worked on, as he received eight yellow cards and one red card during the 2015/2016 season. Nevertheless, under the wings of Simeone, he would not be considered a risk at the back.
Additionally, his stamina and consistency throughout an entire season are two ingredients that Simeone highly values in a player. Only goalkeeper Andrea Consigli (37) and Francesco Acerbi (36) made more appearances than Vrsaljko (35) last season.
Currently, he is representing Croatia at UEFA Euro 2016, acting as the first player to represent his country to be born after Croatian independence was formally and internationally recognized in 1992. At that time, however, Darijo Srna already took his elixir of eternal youth, meaning that Vrsaljko only occasionally features on the left side of defence at the international level. Ironically enough, he faced his potential teammate Juanfran last Tuesday as Croatia recorded a 2-1 victory against Spain.
Nevertheless, at the age of 24, Vrsaljko has still enough time left to make an impact for the Croatian national team. Also, there is, of course, still room for improvement but Vrsaljko is already a consistent right-back both offensively and defensively. At Atlético Madrid, he could be the successful heir to Juanfran’s throne, as the Spaniard is already 31 years old and he will need a break from time to time to allow Atlético to thrive for silverware again this coming season. With Vrsaljko, however, Simeone is able to replace Juanfran without a significant drop-off in quality, which highlights why the Argentine manager is determined to sign the versatile defender.
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