Meet Nikola Vlasic: Who is CSKA’s explosive star?

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Few players have had such a significant and consistent impact on their team’s fortunes as Croatian midfielder Nikola Vlasic. Within months of moving to the Russian Premier Liga he had scored a winner against Real Madrid, and although he is still only 22 years old he has been the leading light dictating play for CSKA Moscow, winning the club’s Player of the Year award for the 2019/20 season.

The story so far

Nikola Vlasic was always destined to be in the limelight. From a very young age his father Josko Vlasic - a five-time Yugoslav decathlon champion who still holds the Croatian decathlon record score from when he won the Mediterrannean Games gold medal almost 40 years ago - began training him personally, while his mother was a former cross-country skiing champion. Their influence gave a strong drive to their son’s development as one of four children.

Nikola started playing football at the NK Omladinac Vranjic academy near Split before moving at the age of 12 at the start of 2010. Within three years he had graduated to the under-17 side and was starting to attract attention from not just his homeland but other countries too. In the 2013/14 season his teammates and he went the first half of the season unbeaten, which not only saw him moved up another age level to the under-19 side three years early, but also saw him voted into the Guardian newspaper’s Next Generation top 40 talents born in 1997.

Records began to tumble in his path as his inexorable rise continued all the way to the first team. He scored on his full debut for the club in a Europa League tie away to Dundalk in July 2014, becoming the youngest player to ever score for the club at the age of 16 years, nine months and 13 days old. It was no flash in the pan either; he would play a further 37 times that season scoring four goals. Almost exactly two years later he was named captain for the first time.

Part of the reason he was so adept at moving up in age groups all the way to the senior ranks so swiftly and smoothly was his family’s approach to physical preparation, and his own development. Josko’s influence would come back to play a major part in his form later in his career, but it had already set him up to combine a prodigious vision with the frame and capacity to cope with challenges. When Everton came in with a healthy bid for his services in the summer of 2017, Vlasic became Hajduk Split’s all-time record transfer.

In England he found playing time harder to come by as the Merseyside club went through four managers that season. Nevertheless, he still appeared in all six of Everton’s Europa League group-stage matches, scoring two goals in the process. In August 2018 he was loaned out to CSKA Moscow, and within two months he had scored the only goal of the game against Real Madrid at the Luzhniki. Since then he hasn’t looked back, and convinced the CSKA to once again make him break a club’s transfer record.

Similar playing style

A young Paul Pogba. Like the Frenchman, Vlasic has an imposing physique matched with a powerful running style, but crucially with a technical mastery of the ball that few midfielders can match. On matchday eight, Vlasic was seen squeezed against the touchline by three FC Ufa opponents with his back to the pitch; for most players, winning a simple throw-in off a marker would have been a successful outcome, but while holding off two of them with a low centre of gravity, the Croatian rolled the ball through the legs of the third before flicking the ball between an impossibly small gap and emerging as calm as possible in complete control.

Pogba is a world champion with France who has flourished best when allowed license to dictate play at his own tempo. It is nigh on impossible to dispossess the Manchester United player when he is in full flow - just as Vlasic shows on a regular basis - and when he ticks, those around him are elevated to a higher level of performance.

Did you know...

His sister Blanka is a double Olympic medallist and double world champion at high jump. She would regularly follow her father when he competed in the decathlon, and although she dabbled with tennis, basketball and volleyball, she settled on the high jump due to her height of 1.94m.

What they say about

“He has been amazing. After arriving, he understood he needed to become a leader. He took that upon himself. He’s ambitious. He wants to play, not sit on the bench. I think it suits him at CSKA.” - Viktor Gancharenko, Vlasic’s manager at CSKA Moscow.

“There are players who are the jewels of our entire championship, such as Hulk, Witsel, Ze Luis, Promes, Vagner Love and so on, and today we have very few of them. Vlasic is a sign that we have great masters. He's the first one that comes to mind.” - Former Spartak Moscow legend Egor Titov on Vlasic’s impact and level.

“We saw a number of important, big-game players retire from the national team; however, we tackled those issues by bringing in a few younger players, who are hungry, ambitious, and very talented - players such as Josip Brekalo and Nikola Vlasic, who were very important during [2022 FIFA World Cup] qualifying.” Croatia national team head coach Zlatko Dalic.

Photo by Denis Tyrin/CSKA Moscow


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