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Ivan Ilić

Analysing the Hellas Verona midfielder once on the books of Manchester City

Ivan Ilić playing for Hellas Verona in the 2021/22 Serie A season

Who is Ivan Ilić?

Niš is the third-largest city in Serbia, and yet it doesn’t produce as many internationals as some smaller cities. But when they are able to churn one out, he’s usually a maestro, and it’s no different in the case of Ivan Ilić. Genes must have played a role, as his mother won the silver medal at the World Championship of basketball in 1990. And that’s not all: his older brother, two years his senior, is also a professional footballer. In fact, Ivan and his brother, Luka, were picked up by Serbian giants Crvena zvezda at the same time.

It didn’t take long for Ivan to impress, as he became the youngest-ever debutant in the Serbian SuperLiga just 18 days after his 16th birthday, beating the likes of Dušan Vlahović and Luka Jović to that particular honour.

Ivan’s performances at Crvena zvezda and Serbia’s national youth teams didn’t go unnoticed abroad. He was courted by many top European sides, including Barcelona. Manchester City, however, were adamant and signed both brothers in the summer of 2017 for a combined fee of €5.5 million. Crvena zvezda, at that time, was facing a dire financial situation and was forced to sell.

Ilić was just 16 when the transfer took place and since he comes from a non-EU country, he had to remain in Serbia until his 18th birthday. After that, he was loaned out, as is usually the case with City Football Group signings – first to NAC Breda in the Netherlands, and later to Hellas Verona to Italy. 

In Verona, he met up with Ivan Jurić, the talented Croatian coach who is now driving a promising project at Torino. Jurić wasn’t afraid to give the youngster not only playing time but the keys to his midfield. Gazzetta Dello Sport even went as far as to label Ivan as ‘the professor’. It was therefore no surprise that Verona did what they could to turn the initial loan into a permanent move and, for a fee of €7.5 million, they succeeded.

In the meantime, Jurić left, and another Croatian coach came in: Igor Tudor. Although Ilić’s role in the team had become a bit more conservative, his development continued. So much so that the original maestro from Niš, Dragan ‘Piksi’ Stojković, has made Ivan part of the Serbian national team.

Ivan Ilić playing for Hellas Verona in the 2021/22 Serie A season

Ivan Ilić's style of play

Strengths

Weaknesses

The double-pivot is certainly not new to football, but it has regained popularity over the last decades. The requirements for the players in a double-pivot have, however, evolved. The specialists of the past are slowly but surely being traded in for more universal midfielders, and Ivan Ilić is an excellent example of the (double-)pivot player of the future.

The first thing you notice when watching Ilić play is his dynamism. Off the ball, he is usually looking for pockets of space, horizontally and vertically. Not bound by his position, he strives to be available at all times and approaches the game with an open stance. Like a chess player, he is able to think ahead with his movement and if the space is there for him to get into advanced positions, he’s not one to hesitate.

When his side is chasing the ball, his long legs, aggression and surprising acceleration make him an excellent applier of pressure. While Ilić is not a natural defender, he is quite good in the air as well as one-vs-one situations, as he has the ability to really stick to his opponent. As a ball-winner, however, there is still room for improvement. Ilić is reactive defender in general. He is often too focused on the ball and his man without having the positional sense to see the bigger picture and snuff out danger through good anticipation.

On the ball is a completely different story. Ilić is a player with great technical ability, capable of progressing play through both passing and carrying. He is usually a key component in Verona’s build-up play, where he shows good spatial awareness. Ilić reads the game well and scans a lot. When pressed, he is quite composed, aided by his ability to make quick and fluid turns. He frequently acts as the side’s tempo-setter and approaches this role with great discipline.

Although Ilić can be a creative passer, his assist numbers so far have been modest. He excels at short, one-touch combination play but does have a more extensive range and the ability and vision to play line-breaking passes. The only things preventing him from becoming a high-level playmaker right now are consistency and an at times overly-ambitious nature in regard to passing, particularly over a longer range. Regardless, Ilić is one of the regular set-piece takers for Hellas Verona, which he does with a lot of curve and power.

One of his main weapons is his ability to drive forward with the ball, combining pace with dribbling ability. Quite frequently, he likes to bait the opposition, allowing his teammates more time and space on the ball. Ilić has excellent close ball control, and has the skill to work his way out of tight situations but does at times lack overview while doing so. Another issue he faces – also on the defensive side – is a lack of serious upper-body strength. He still struggles against more physical opponents and will need to fill in his light frame over time.

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His scoring record in Serie A hasn’t been impressive but that is in part down to Ilić’s reluctance to take shots on goal. He is, however, a composed finisher once he gets into the right positions and with a record of 12 goals in 105 senior games, the potential for more is there. 

Finally, an underrated aspect of his game is his maturity and the tactical discipline he displays on a weekly basis. Having been asked to play both more adventurous and conservative roles by different managers, he has been able to adapt without much difficulty. His positional awareness in possession also extends to his team-mates; Ilić is a vocal coach, despite his young age. 

Forecasting Ivan Ilić's future

When you put all of that together, you get a player who is not yet an elite passern or a consistent creative force with certain defensive flaws and still has to work on his upper-body strength. All that considered, many stronger sides from both Serie A and La Liga are unsurprisingly interested in the young midfielder from Niš. 

Ilić would no doubt be a quality depth signing for most of the interested clubs, but in reality, they wouldn’t be signing him for the player he is today, but for the one he has the potential to become. Considering he is already a fairly all-round midfielder, who is still only 21 years old with just two seasons in a top-five league under his belt, there is plenty of room for development.

If he can improve his defensive weaknesses and develop more consistency in his passing, he can become a complete midfielder. A heavily sought-after commodity in the increasingly universal world of football.

scoutedftbl.com

Ivan Ilić is a well-rounded pivot midfielder that progresses possession with passing and ball-carrying. He is a high-level technical player, equipped with good control and touch as well as decent vision and positional awareness.

Ivan Ilić’s primary weakness is his positional awareness against the ball – he is a reactive defender, rather than a proactive one. He can also be too ambitious with his pass selection and also lacks some upper-body strength.