Jose Mourinho appearing anywhere in the stands is always bound to cause rumours. The international break is no different, so when he chose to watch Serbia v Montenegro the papers went into overdrive. Who was he eyeing up? Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was reported to be the focus of the Portuguese’s attentions, but played down Mourinho’s presence.
“It’s obvious that I was pleased that a coach of his stature came to see the game,” the Serbian said afterwards. “I read everywhere that he was here at the stadium to see me play, but that does not mean anything. Maybe he was not here for me, but for someone else.”
The polite compliment about Mourinho’s ‘stature’ offers little insight into the player’s interest in a move. His remarks about reading widespread reports is mildly intriguing though. He is certainly aware of the idea, however real or fabricated it is. Most players wanting to stay at their current club would feign ignorance to such talk. Nevertheless, any move would be highly unlikely to materialise before next summer anyway.
Perhaps of greater interest is the second name mentioned in connection with Mourinho’s attentions: Nikola Milenkovic. United’s centre-back problems are clearly a major area for concern, so the Fiorentina defender is an understandable area of interest. His statistics make an interesting case for pursuing his signature.
The first obvious advantage the 21-year-old Serbian international has is his versatility. While he has lined up as a right full back this season domestically, for his country he’s played centrally. With Antonio Valencia’s increasingly marginal influence and advancing age, Diogo Dalot remains the only long-term option at right back. To bring in a player slightly more advanced in his development than Dalot would make sense.
To judge his suitability for this role, we should analyse his performances for Fiorentina where he plays this role. Despite playing in a wide position, he has won 2.4 aerial duels per match this season and rarely loses the ball. In eight full matches, he has registered an average of just 0.5 unsuccessful touches.
Going forward he is less obviously an improvement. He hasn’t attempted any dribbles according to WhoScored. With just one successful cross to his name in total – despite attempting an average of nine in total – isn’t encouraging. Of his 45 passes per game, 9.5 are long balls, with over half not finding their target.
One criticism of Valencia is that he has lost his pace and aggression in taking players on. In his prime, he would power past opposition markers and offer a real threat. His reticence to get forward has rendered him an ineffective cog in the machine. He has registered 0.6 successful dribbles per game, but at least his crossing is more accurate than Milenkovic’s so far. The Ecuadorian has attempted the same number, but five have been accurate.
Neither player offer the complete package as a modern fullback that can attack as well as defend. If it is an attacking upgrade in the right-back area that Mourinho is looking for, Milenkovic might not be the type of player he needs.
Many media outlets like to use the height of United’s team as a target to ridicule the team’s blunt approach. At 1.95m tall, Milenkovic certainly has the physical presence. Since the start of the World Cup, he has won 3.5 out of 4.8 attempted aerial duels for Serbia. This ratio of success in the air is far better than United’s current regular centre backs. Chris Smalling, for example has won an average of 4.0 out of 6.7 attempted aerial duels, while Victor Lindelof has won just 1.5 out of an attempted 2.8. Eric Bailly is yet to lose an aerial duel, but has only attempted four in three games.
His anticipation has also allowed him to win 17 out of 21 attempted tackles for club and country in that same time period. What United clearly lack at the back is a commanding, composed leader to instil some confidence. Chris Smalling’s statistics are not reassuring in this area despite him clearly being the nominated leader in the air.
Nikola Milenkovic is a centre back by trade, and that is where he could potentially bring most value to the team. His versatility could also be an answer to solving an underappreciated weak spot at right back. Valencia is not the long term answer, but Dalot could be. The Portuguese is still inexperienced with minimal top-flight minutes under his belt. Milenkovic could offer cover or rotation in that area too. Either way, a move for the 21-year-old Serb makes a lot of sense.