When Bayern Munich officially signed Mario Mandzukic from Wolfsburg in June last year there were a lot of disgruntled and skeptical voices. Was this the technical, versatile star striker that management promised or that the club were looking for? Make no mistake, Mandzukic was excellent at Wolfsburg but he was never thought of as a world class talent or a first choice option for a Champions League aspirant.
Fast forward nine months, though, and the Croatian striker has been a crucial part of the club’s historic season. The league title will be wrapped up in record-breaking fashion and Bayern have one foot in the semifinals of the much coveted Champions League. It’s hard to imagine Bayern being where they are right now without Mandzukic. The team has come together collectively over the season and every player has raised their game but Mandzukic, despite what many thought initially, proved to be exactly what Bayern needed after all.
First choice striker Mario Gomez’s injury might have fortuitously presented Mandzukic with a direct path to the starting lineup but from day one he impressed in training and worked relentlessly to adapt to the club’s high standards. Most importantly, he immediately made an impact on matchdays. He scored 9 goals in his first 11 league matches for the club and became the team’s first line of defense with his intense workrate and pressing, the latter of which has become a key characteristic and factor in the team’s playing style and success this season.
Game in and game out, Mandzukic always ranks up highest in terms of duels won in a game. In fact, only Stefan Kiessling has a higher number and better duels won percentage than Mandzukic in the league (205 and 48% respectively), numbers that are pretty outstanding for a striker whose focus in the game is not always to engage opponents in tackles but look for chances to score. Against Juventus for example, he won a match-high 16 duels and was crucial in occupying Juve’s three center-backs who struggled to play the ball out of the back throughout the match. Without Mandzukic, Juventus’ 18-match unbeaten run would still stand.
Knowing how to press from the front as a striker is a lot more difficult and energy-consuming than many think, but it’s an area of the game in which Mandzukic excels more than most others strikers the business. He may not be the most flashy forward but his off-the-ball play is world class. There aren’t many strikers out there that could take on not one, not two but three defenders and do it with great frequency and consistency over 90 minutes. Defending from the front requires not only intense stamina though but great spatial awareness and knowing when and where exactly to press. Predicting player movement is a crucial part of a team’s pressing game and it’s one in which Mandzukic again excels.
His defensive work is largely why Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes has kept him first choice despite Mario Gomez returning from injury and Claudio Pizarro seemingly being the better fit technically. But it’s not the only determining factor. Mandzukic’s contribution is manifold. His 15 goals in the league is a personal record for him already but he is just as effective setting up goals. He was directly involved in and created an impressive 88 goal scoring attempts for his teammates in the league this season. Simply put, when Mandzukic is on the field, those around him excel. That was the kind of domino effect many were clamoring for before the season and Mandzukic has fulfilled that role brilliantly.
What distinguishes him from other, more traditional, strikers are his flexibility and mobility. Mandzukic is able to get involved in and create so many chances because he freely rotates with other attackers and rarely stays in position unless clearly instructed to do so. There have been games where he played the “fox in the box” more than others but generally speaking, his biggest strengths are his readiness to come out wide to play others in or make the cross or drop to let others run onto the ball for example.
Mandzukic had the right mentality from day one. He admitted that he would most likely start and be on the bench several times but was always adamant about working his way into the team and confident that he would do well at the club. And when he did he never let it get to his head. Early in the season he was quick to praise the great service around him when he went on his great goalscoring run. That belief in himself and his abilities have visibly translated onto the pitch and historic treble beckons as a result.
They say confidence is half the battle in a striker’s world and the best goalscorers are those who always keep their heads up and continuously assert themselves in games. Mandzukic’s earnestness and desire has helped the team reach another level. Whereas Bayern struggled to always get results in their biggest games in the last two years, this year has been the exact opposite. It’s no surprise that Mandzukic has had some of his best performances in those big games; Borussia Dortmund in the Cup, the away game against Arsenal and the recent match against Juventus for example. Suffice to say, he has been a big game player this season.
A top-class professional, a big game player and an integral part of a potentially treble-winning team. Not bad for a guy who many thought would be second or third choice.
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