Serbia World Cup squad analysis: Krstajić’s cut in the spotlight

Serbia World Cup squad analysis: Krstajić’s cut in the spotlight

Miloš Marković –

An eventful week is behind the Serbian national team as Mladen Krstajić has announced his final World Cup squad. We have taken a closer look and provide you with an in-depth analysis.

Hours before announcing his final, 23-man World Cup squad on Friday, Mladen Krstajić led his team to a formal reception with the Serbia president Aleksandar Vučić. On a promise of a €10 million if they return from Russia with a trophy in their hands, the Serbian players – all 27 of them from the provisional list – were given a huge incentive and boost to do their absolute best at the showpiece tournament.

“I am grateful to these young men for choosing to fight for their country after an excruciating season at their clubs. I expect excellent results from them. We will be following them with great anticipation, hope and joy. I wish you all good luck and good health.”, the president of Serbia exclaimed.

The message of hope from the head of state-encouraged Mladen Krstajić to trim his 27-man squad list earlier than initially expected. The former Werder Bremen defender has been keeping the public on edge over the past month as he kept pushing the deadline, refusing to unveil the date of squad announcement officially.

Provisional list presentation was a surprise in its merit as the Serbian FA decided to organise this official event at a gas station to honour the national team’s sponsor – EKO Serbia.

“When will the final squad be announced? Soon.”, he would tell the impatient members of the press with a skittish look on his face.

Inconspicuously, the Orlovi (Eagles) were expected to continue putting the finishing touches to the first part of their World Cup preparations in their headquarters in Stara Pazova before a trip to Austria where Mladen Krstajić’s men will lock horns with Chile (4th June) and Bolivia (9th June).

But then, out of the blue, even though he suggested the final list will be made after the Chile game, Mladen Krstajić issued his 23-man list, the final World Cup squad which was published on the Serbian FA’s official website.

The list includes the following players:

Goalkeepers – Vladimir Stojković (Partizan), Marko Dmitrović (Eibar), Predrag Rajković (Maccabi Tel Aviv).

Defenders – Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), Aleksandar Kolarov (AS Roma), Milan Rodić (Crvena Zvezda), Branislav Ivanović (Zenit St Petersburg), Uroš Spajić (FC Krasnodar), Duško Tošić (Guangzhou), Miloš Veljković (Werder Bremen), Nikola Milenković (Fiorentina).

Midfielders – Luka Milivojević (Crystal Palace), Nemanja Matić (Manchester United), Marko Grujić (Liverpool), Adem Ljajić (Torino), Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio), Dušan Tadić (Southampton), Filip Kostić (Hamburger SV), Andrija Živković (Benfica), Nemanja Radonjić (Crvena Zvezda).

Attackers – Aleksandar Mitrović (Newcastle United), Aleksandar Prijović (PAOK), Luka Jović (Eintracht Frankfurt).

The likes of Mijat Gaćinović (Eintracht Frankfurt), Matija Nastasić (Schalke), Aleksandar Jovanović (Aarhus) and Nemanja Maksimović (Valencia) did not make the cut and will not be travelling to Russia.

Krstajić’s final selection did raise a couple of eyebrows and will launch a couple of tactical questions the general public will be keen to see how Krstajić addresses. The final list of passengers to Russia, however, already offers an insight of sort into Serbia manager’s tactical vision.

Goalkeepers Analysis

With Mladen Krstajić choosing to include four goalkeepers in his provisional 27-man squad, it was always evident one of the redundant players would come from the glovesmen list. The goalkeeping position is arguably the clearest one as Mladen Krstajić is expected to reward the Partizan shot stopper Stojković with a No.1 shirt in Russia.

The experienced goalkeeper – although unpredictable at times – is arguably the best Serbia got in goal. His determination and dedication to the national side is commendable whereas it is his immense international experience that’s keeping him at the top of the pecking order.

Eibar's Marko Dmitrović (l.) is expected to challenge for the number one position in Serbia's goal (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Eibar’s Marko Dmitrović (l.) is expected to challenge for the number one position in Serbia’s goal (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Being the bearer of change, however, Mladen Krstajić could opt to lay faith into the gloves of Marko Dmitrović, who’s coming off from an impressive season in La Liga. The Eibar goalkeeper has been one of the most notable players in his team and would relish an opportunity to challenge Vladimir Stojković for a place in the starting line up.

As for the young Predrag Rajković, the Maccabi Tel Aviv goalkeeper and Serbia’s former Under-20 World Cup winner will use Russia to gain valuable experience.

Defence Analysis

Matija Nastasić is the most notable omission from the list, the Schalke centre-back failed to recover from injury and will not be travelling to Russia with the rest of the pack. His absence will be a significant blow for the Serbian national side, but Mladen Krstajić did well to find an adequate replacement in Nikola Milenković.

The 20-year-old Fiorentina defender enjoyed a stellar campaign in the Serie A. He made a massive impression in his maiden season with the Viola, making the total of 18 appearances across all competitions. Milenković is a substantial aerial presence and a physical force to be reckoned with despite his tender age. Mladen Krstajić would be very wise to thrust the youngster into the heart of action knowing Milenković has all the physical attributes and the mental capacity to deliver at the biggest stage fully.

Analysis - Branislav Ivanović remains at the heart of Serbia's defence (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

Analysis – Branislav Ivanović remains at the heart of Serbia’s defence (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

He could be a valuable replacement for Branislav Ivanović in the heart of defence which would subsequently allow Krstajić to push the former Chelsea man to right-back. Ivanović is a more attack-minded compared to Rukavina and could add a vital boost going forward, especially in games versus Costa Rica and Switzerland.

Midfield Analysis

Our analysis suggests that Mladen Krstajić is expected to field a 4-2-3-1 system in Russia, and the midfield line has been the most debated part of the team.

Nemanja Matić is keeping his place under a lock and is guaranteed to start every World Cup match. The Manchester United star has repeatedly demonstrated his world-class quality and will be a backbone of the Serbian side. His on-ball composure and stamina, in combination with a measured decision making, will bring balance to the centre of the park.

Crystal Palace captain Luka Milivojević’s season at Selhurst Park could be a huge argument to persuade Mladen Krstajić to slot him alongside Matić in a second defensive midfield position. Milivojević has grown as a player, proving he can be relied on to get the job done. The total of 35 appearances in his first full Premier League season, ten goals and an assist are speaking volumes of his ability as well.

The world’s most wanted man Sergej Milinković-Savić would be the best choice for the central attacking midfield position. Sergeant, as they call him in Italy, is another imposing presence on the pitch. Tall, dominant and ruthless in movement, vision and creativity, Milinković-Savić could be an ace up Serbia’s sleeve and a trump card when all options fail. His masterclass could be a tipping point in an impasse along with his ability to single-handedly solve the match.

Sergej Milinković-Savić is one of the hottest prospects in Europe at the moment and according to our analysis could be a key player for Serbia at the tournament (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

Sergej Milinković-Savić is one of the hottest prospects in Europe at the moment and according to our analysis could be a key player for Serbia at the tournament (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

The Eagles’ wings have also been one of the most scrutinised positions in the team. Krstajić has received a barrage of criticism for denying the Eintracht Frankfurt star Mijat Gaćinović a chance to cap his impressive season with a World Cup appearance. Gaćinović had been used as a joker under Slavoljub Muslin, but a deeper look into Krstajić’s logic should be enough to explain his choices.

With Filip Kostić, Adem Ljajić and Crvena Zvezda pearl Nemanja Radonjić – whose impressive season with the Serbian Super Liga champions attracted the interest of Serie A side Genoa – all capable of piercing forward from the left, Krstajić mainly focused on the right-hand-side where he opted to accommodate Andrija Živković instead of Gaćinović.

“All players are equal, and this came down to details. Mijat Gaćinović and Nemanja Maksimović did not make the cut because of the system we want to implement. Nemanja Radonjić and Andrija Živković got a slight advantage, and that’s all there is to it.”, Krstajić said of his choices.

A look past the reserved Serbia manager’s statement clearly states that Krstajić wishes to exploit Andrija Živković’s versatility. Former Partizan star went through a proper metamorphosis at Benfica this season where he tackled a new role – at the heart of the pitch as a creative midfielder – and thrived in it.

With him onboard, Krstajić now has plenty of options to shift his system and reshape the style of play. Dušan Tadić is expected to be used and a first-choice right winger – even though he spent the entire qualifying process in a playmaker’s role – whereas the multifaceted likes of Radonjić, Ljajić and Živković will add an extra dimension into the final third.

Attack Analysis

A full analysis of the squad shows that the true depth of Mladen Krstajić’s tactical genius is seen through his attack choices.

Slavoljub Muslin insisted on a rigidly formed attacking line composed of two very similar types of players. Aleksandar Mitrović and Aleksandar Prijović did go on to enjoy a successful campaign, leading the Serbian team forward to the World Cup spot. Despite their vast talent and attacking potential, however, the Eagles were seen grinding out results far too often than the FA was willing to accept and the rigidness upfront, along with the lack of attacking fluidity, definitely was one of the main reasons Muslin got sacked.

Aleksandr Prijović celebrates Serbia's successful World Cup qualification campaign. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

Aleksandr Prijović celebrates Serbia’s successful World Cup qualification campaign (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

Krstajić should, in contrast, be applauded for his decision to include Luka Jović in his final squad and bring the in-form Eintracht Frankfurt striker to the World Cup. The 20-year-old forward scored eight goals in nine Bundesliga starts – and 21 league appearances in total. The total of 929 minutes on the pitch makes him the very top of the league regarding goals per minute which is another considerable argument that made him an obvious choice for Krstajić.

With Luka Jović upfield, Mladen Krstajić will be allowed to steer away from the long-ball style of play Serbia would often resort to. More mobile and agile than the swashbuckling Aleksandar Mitrović or robust Aleksandar Prijović, the Eintracht Frankfurt forward would provide a dynamic alternative in attack – the one that’s expected to complement the fluid midfield line.

A holder of Master’s degree in English language and literature, Miloš Marković worked as the Editor-in-Chief at He now contributes to various outlets as a freelance journalist. He also is a member of the Guardian Network and a FIFAcorrespondent for Serbia. Passionate about English language and football, Miloš Marković is also a huge Liverpool fan. You can find him on Twitter  @milosemarkovicu.