Around a month ago, Serie A was a very different place to the one it is now. Napoli were finally looking as though they were putting together some sort of legitimate challenge to Juventus for the Scudetto which would, if nothing else, assure both of the top two spots in the table; AC Milan, newly equipped with Mario Balotelli, were continuing their fantastic recovery from their awful start to the season, flying towards the Champions League places, just as Inter’s dip took on a new toll as their only true ‘number 9′ Diego Milito was (shockingly) ruled out for the remainder of the season. Lazio had suffered a similar fate, losing Miroslav Klose for a few months, leaving them without a goalscorer, which has seen them recede in their charge for Champions League football.
In the meantime, sixth-placed Fiorentina, fresh from a 2-1 away loss to Bologna, appeared to be relying on all three of those teams to collapse and they to be pretty great themselves – something which had visited them far more occasionally than in any way consistently – if they were to make the top three. In the first full season of Vincenzo Montella’s new project, this was of not representative of any great crisis, but did present a worry as to the future of their best player. A month on, they sit in fourth, just three points behind Milan and five from Napoli, whose own collapse has been quite something to behold.
Their rise up the table has very much had its roots in Stevan Jovetić’s return to form. He has had a patchy season thus far. It started strongly, with him scoring 5 in his first 7 league games, all of which came with him playing in a two-striker system. With Luca Toni and Mounir El Hamdaoui he was very much the ‘number 10’ and it was alongside them where the goals flowed most. By contrast, with Adem Ljajić, who is usually somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a winger, they played in a more rotatory manner, with both capable of playing deeper and further forward. Mostly, however, this saw Jovetić, the far stronger in front of goal, sit further up while Ljajić got to grips with the position. This led to Jovetić pushed further away from the play, reflected by his generally low goalscoring alongside the Serbian in the first half of the season. At the time, it was a relationship that greatly benefitted neither party.
The number 10 role is widely regarded as the position in which Jovetć is most comfortable. Much of his career has been divided between there and time on the left wing, which has allowed him to develop his creative tendencies and hone his ability to beat players. This year looked as if it was to be the breakthrough campaign for his goalscoring which has been solid, if not prolific, through his time in Tuscany.
He missed six weeks from early November after picking up a thigh injury, but he still managed to score a few goals either side of the injury. There is a misconception where Jovetić is concerned that he is an injury-prone player, thanks to the cruciate knee ligament tear in 2010 which ruled him out of the 10/11 season. He had a few minor muscular problems across the 11/12 season, but these are commonplace for players recovering from long-term injuries. Otherwise, the aforementioned thigh issue has very much been an outlier this year.
In more recent weeks, he has been used at the centre of a three striker system, as a ‘9.5’ style of centre forward, in the mould of both Robin van Persie and Karim Benzema last season, respectively, when the former was used in a more creative capacity by Arsenal and when the latter remembered how to be good at football. This sort of system is difficult for a team to adjust to, as it requires the whole side to be accustomed to having their striker spend most of his time closer to the midfield than the penalty area, as well as said striker having a strong understanding with his wingers, who are needed to operate more centrally, and the key creators behind them.
Jovetić and Ljajić very steadily established a strong partnership during their time played as a pair, and their respective moves into positions that, it could be argued, suit them better has seen them both flourish to a greater degree. Jovetić has maintained his total positional freedom, only now he has more space to use it. Not reflected in the stats is that he is visibly learning his new role as he goes, but is picking it up quickly. The only struggles he appears to be having with it is trying to be close to the main midfield creators David Pizzaro, Alberto Aquilani and Borja Valero (or whichever one, two or even three of which are on at any given point), all of whom are deeper-lying playmakers rather than classic number 10s.
So Jovetić is occasionally forced to sit deeper than even most ‘false 9s’, but this is becoming less and less of a problem as his understanding develops with the aforementioned midfielders. One stat that does bear this out is the fact that they have scored 9 goals in the 4 games in which Jovetić has been used at centre forward.
The mention of Van Persie gains more credence with a comparison between the two players. Both came through as number 10s who were comfortable on the wings; both are extraordinarily technically blessed and with a outstanding ability to manipulate space. With Thomas Müller, Jovetić is the closest thing to the Dutchman outside of the man himself. The Montenegrin’s movement is similarly brilliant outside the penalty area and he shares his excellent vision, creativity and ability to bring his teammates into play. Jovetić, however, is more able to beat players, while the former Feyenoord man remains stronger (at least at the moment) in most other departments.
Van Persie did not adapt instantly to the centre forward role and in his early days there; he assisted far more than he scored. His deep movement was as brilliant as ever it was, but it took him a while to crack where to place himself in the area. Once he did, the goals arrived. And, at first wonderfully and now most irritatingly, they have barely stopped. The same is currently, and will certainly become true of Jovetić. His goals have almost all come from outside of the 18-yard box across his career and when he combines this with the poacher’s instincts, which he is more than clever enough to learn, he will be near-unstoppable, and it will reflect in his goal record.
The similarities with Van Persie go their way to further explaining Arsenal’s apparent interest in him. His ability further back also make him ideal for Manchester City’s and Juventus’ (the two other seemingly interested parties) preferred two-striker systems.
For Arsenal he would play a role similar to his new one for La Viola, only with the main playmakers closer to him. He would combine extremely well with Santi Cazorla who himself has shown great improvement in his finishing and positioning in the area in recent weeks, as well as Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, as wingers who prefer the inside track to providing pure width themselves.
For City, assuming Roberto Mancini is still in charge, and Juventus, he would fit in very easily, but would not be utilised as the key goalscorer. Rather, he would be used in the more creative role. At City, a combination of David Silva and he switching between going wide and moving centrally within games could be marvellous to behold. In Turin, he would play as an alternative to Sebastian Giovinco, with the similar penchant for making play from wide areas.
Any move to either (the former being far more likely than the latter given the history between Juventus and Fiorentina) would probably be negative for his development as a ‘9.5’, but would not damage him overall: he is far too good not to get the playing time required to excel at whichever, should he make the move.
His spending four and a half years at Fiorentina, through their travails, while bigger and better sides (no disrespect intended to Fiorentina) have come calling probably speaks to his being a player with football on his mind above all else. He has prioritised a place and system where he is comfortable and able to excel over money and the chance to ‘fit in’ somewhere else. With this, I personally feel that if Arsenal do stump up the money – a monumental ‘if’ – they will be his chosen destination; of those interested, they provide the environment and manager who would allow him to flourish best. But that is based on nothing more than hunch (and is probably wildly wrong).
He is not, at this point, a 30-goal a season striker: he is in the process of becoming one. He could become the archetype of the modern, complete centre forward, capable of scoring and assisting in equal measure. He may still remain in Florence – which would be more likely should they achieve Champions League football – but whichever teams he does end up at will have a magnificent player. Fiorentina appear to be demanding €30million for him. Should any pay that, it could be the best €30million they ever spent.
This blog originally appeared on The Roaming Libero