Two years ago, Nikola Maksimović was one of the more sought-after defenders in Europe. His performances with Torino had attracted interest from some of the continent’s traditional behemoths, and it seemed inevitable that he would go on to enjoy a long and fulfilling career at the top of the game.
Fast forward to the present, however, and his situation has altered greatly. Having suffered that most infamous of injuries, the metatarsal fracture, he left for Napoli. But he has since been unable to establish himself at the Stadio San Paolo. Out of the team more than he is in it, he may soon be looking elsewhere for game time. Arsenal could be his next destination.
According to Italian sports magazine Guerin Sportivo, the Gunners are keen on adding Maksimović to their ranks in the January transfer window. It isn’t the most exciting rumour associated with the Premier League club of late, but it is in line with their recent history.
Since arriving in the 1990s, Arséne Wenger has overseen great change at Arsenal. However, one of the recurring themes throughout his tenure has been a willingness to revive ailing careers. The most high-profile examples of this were Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. Both joined after difficult spells in Italy; both went on to become icons.
Whether Maksimović has the same iconic potential is doubtful. Those are, after all, some mightily impressive footsteps to follow. However, he would appear to be of the quality and style to enhance Arsenal’s back line. And, considering they have the worst defensive record in the Premier League’s top six, enhancing the back line should be a priority.
Maksimović joined Torino in 2013, and it was there that he broke out as a player. He had played frequently for Red Star Belgrade in his native Serbia, but it wasn’t until the move to Italy that he began to catch the eye of scouts from the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Under the tutelage of current Italy boss Giampiero Ventura, he settled into a back three. From the right-hand side, his ability to drive forward with the ball at feet and pick a pass over the top were important attributes within the team’s attacking game.
With remarkable grace for a centre-back, he would often be seen carrying possession into the middle third, using his physical strength and impeccable control to beat opposition men. He wasn’t just about the attacking phase, however; he also proved himself to be a capable defender.
Aerially forceful, an aggressive marker and physically strong, Maksimović was tough to beat. He formed a solid back three with Kamil Glik – who now organises Monaco’s defence – and Emiliano Moretti. And, even if they were opened up, the Serbian had the pace to quickly recover.
As a composed, ball-playing central defender, it was almost inevitable that links to Napoli would appear. But, while he has displayed many of the same qualities mentioned above since that move came to fruition, he has rarely featured within Maurizio Sarri’s beautiful system.
Indeed, since joining the club last August, Maksimović has made just nine league appearances for the Neapolitan outfit. While the aforementioned metatarsal trouble didn’t help him adjust quickly to new surroundings, much of his difficulties arise from a change in the tactical environment.
MAKSIMOVIĆ’S BACK FOUR STRUGGLES
Wenger, ideally, wants his centre-backs to be comfortable on the ball. This has become increasingly evident in the second half of his long Arsenal tenure; ever since the likes of Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Sol Campbell moved on, the Frenchman has emphasised the technical over the commanding.
Maksimović, as discussed, possesses the technical qualities to fit right in at the Emirates Stadium. More important than that, however, is his preference for playing as part of a back three – which Arsenal will likely continue to operate with against Watford this weekend, as shown below – as opposed to a back four.
This issue has been highlighted since his move to Napoli, where he has found himself lodged behind Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol in the pecking order. And, whenever he has played, his proclivity for driving runs and precise long balls has been curbed by his operating at the heart – rather than on the outside – of defence.
Nonetheless, it hasn’t been a natural adjustment, as the player himself admitting in an interview with Radio Kiss Kiss. “I wanted to be there last year because working with Sarri is very important, especially for us defenders,” he said. “Last season I had some problems. I played little because I was used to a different football, but now I’m fine and I’m at the disposal of [the manager].”
Sarri has also commented on Maksimović’s struggles in the past, admitting: “He is struggling a little, as is natural after four years in a three-man defence with diametrically opposed movements. We haven’t had as much time to work on this in training, but we’re trying to get him up to speed.”
ARSENAL SUITS MAKSIMOVIĆ
On the face of it, Arsenal have more than enough central defensive options, even when considering their newfound love for the 3-4-2-1 system. However, a closer looks reveals the need to add a quality, long-term centre-back.
Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal are all capable, but are all also on the wrong side of 30 years old. In addition, the former’s contract expires at the end of this season, and the latter is a converted left-back who doesn’t always look comfortable with the physical demands of his new role.
Rob Holding has plenty of promise but is relatively inexperienced at this stage, while Calum Chambers’ place remains unsure after a spell out on loan with Middlesbrough last term and an injury early on in this campaign.
Shkodran Mustafi is talented, but came inexplicably close to leaving for Inter Milan towards the end of the summer transfer window. Sead Kolašinac can play at centre-back, but prefers wing-back, where his barrelling forward runs are maximised.
Maksimović is a natural centre-back. He is at his best on the right of a back three, but has played adequately centrally within the same setup for his country. At 25, he has both experience and upside. He also suits Wenger’s style of play. In short, he’s arguably a better fit for Arsenal than any one of their existing six central defensive options.
Statistically, he compares well to the likes of Mustafi and Koscielny. The last time he played enough to get a good idea of his true level was 2015/16. Comparing his numbers to those of the Arsenal duet last term, he comes out on top in most of the important categories.
He averaged more tackles and interceptions. While he averaged slightly fewer passes and had a lower completion rate, he created more chances per game. On top of that, he completed more dribbles than the Gunners pair combined. All of this confirms his ability to play through pressure, contribute offensively, and do the gritty defensive work when required.
If Maksimović can recapture the form of 2015/16, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem with regular game in a suitable tactical framework, he could provide the combination of aggression and skill that Arsenal need at centre-back.