A profile of the big VfB Stuttgart striker, taken from Volume X
Who is Saša Kalajdžić?
Note: This profile was first written in June 2021. All statistics and facts are correct to that time period.
Saša Kalajdžić’s early career has not been the easiest of rides. The 23-year-old Austrian has had to overcome a lot to stake his claim as one of the Bundesliga’s most interesting strikers. Currently impressing in Germany’s top flight as the striking spearhead of an exciting VfB Stuttgart side under Pellegrino Matarazzo, Kalajdžić has had to overcome multiple injuries in his brief, four-year senior career to reach the level he has.
A number of joint problems and a foot fracture meant he spent almost an entire year on the sidelines across different spells at his first club, Admira Wacker Mödling. Despite missing prolonged periods, he put up some impressive numbers across his two seasons in Admira’s first-team. He scored 11 goals in total across 1,800 minutes played, the equivalent of 20 full games, and he really caught the eye as the 2018/19 season came to a close, contributing to nine goals in 11 appearances.
The goals have always come when he has been on the pitch, something which Stuttgart’s Sven Mislintat obviously appreciated. Kalajdžić joined VfB for €1.75 million in the summer of 2019, but he soon succumbed to another injury, this time tearing a cruciate ligament in pre-season.
That kept him out for most of the club’s promotion season, with him only being fit for the final six games, but this season could not have gone much better. He has scored 16 Bundesliga goals and provided five assists in 2,136 minutes of action. This return has outstripped his 0.38 expected goals and 0.15 expected assists per 90 minutes, but both remain legitimately good numbers to build upon.
International recognition for Austria was an inevitability, and he made his debut in late 2020; he has three goals in four appearances for his country already. We are finally starting to see what the massive, 6′7″ striker is capable of.
Saša Kalajdžić's style of play
When presented with a striker of Saša Kalajdžić’s extraordinary frame, it is easy to reach for the clichés – but the Austrian is much more than a tall, simple target man. Describing himself as a ‘nine-and-a-half’, his touch and awareness belie his long, lanky physique.
He does possess the aerial qualities of a classic nine: Kalajdžić has scored the most headed goals in the Bundesliga this season, one more than the next best: André Silva. This is the product of good, evasive movement between defenders, as well as being able to overwhelm markers with his size. He also has the ability to adapt his technique to suit the situation; he can attack the ball to score powerful bullet headers and use the pace of crosses to guide the ball toward the target.
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Kalajdžić is also excellent with the ball on the floor and is very capable of making a nuisance of himself against the last line of defence. He constantly adjusts his body shape and alters his movements to hunt for pockets of space both ahead of and behind defensive lines.
He does not possess rapid pace or acceleration, no surprise given his size, but he is mobile enough to test defences by making short bursts in-behind, sniffing out opportunities inside the box, including making darting runs towards the near post for low crosses. It is in these situations that the big Austrian demonstrates a ruthless quality: he possesses a great drilled shot, executed with minimal backlift, that catches goalkeepers cold.
He can also use clever, improvised finishes, first-time volleys and occasionally works a yard to generate his own shots. He has the ability to trap higher balls with his chest, take them down, and get a snapshot off.
But as he is keen to stress himself, there is more to his game than just goal threat. His formative years as a midfielder is evident in his ability to link play intelligently in the final third. He rarely moves outside the width of the penalty box, acting as a reference point for attacks and providing an advanced platform by cleverly moving outside the cover shadow of opponents to receive direct passes from deep or facilitate shorter, sharper combinations.
He is comfortable at subtly dropping off the defensive line too, which he does to create passing lanes. He is also adept at playing deft, one-touch lay-offs to supporting players. It is interesting to see a player with such physical traits generally not needing to use them in holding off defenders; instead he takes up intelligent spaces and lays the ball off quickly, and on occasion takes the ball on the turn and feeds runners in behind.
These are not just fleeting moments in games, as he ranks in the top percentile of both passes made and progressive passes received per 90 for Bundesliga forwards, which highlight how involved he often is. When supplemented by his ability to play on the last line and provide a goal threat, Kalajdžić is a player that creates difficult decisions for defenders and is a varied threat in the final third.
As a dribbler, he will not drive at opponents with the ball, but has a reasonable ability to retain possession in tight spaces under pressure. He does not have lightning quick feet, but can manipulate the ball with some efficiency to keep and move the ball in pressured situations. This is likely an area of his game that, if developed, could add another very valuable string to his attacking bow.
Forecasting Saša Kalajdžić's future
At 23 years old, Kalajdžić is still young but will be conscious that he is about to enter what are considered his ‘peak’ years. But his injury record throws up an interesting dynamic; he has only played just over a full season of league minutes since his senior debut in 2017, suggesting that he has plenty of battery life left in him. At the same time, his injury record is a cause for concern. If managed sensibly, Kalajdžić could be a prolific all-round forward for years to come, but there will always be a sense of trepidation about his durability.
It is vital that he is not reduced to being a straight-up target man for aerial balls, as this would waste his multi-dimensional profile and ability to connect play and offer a rounded threat, particularly if he is surrounded by supporting runners to make the use of his talent.
If he can put his injury issues behind him and amass a further full season of important minutes, there is no reason why Champions League calibre teams will not be registering an interest in the future.
Saša Kalajdžić possesses an almost unique size and frame for a striker, but he is a technically gifted player despite that. His touch and technique is impressive, as is his awareness and subtle movements. He is also an adept finisher capable of clever finishes.
Saša Kalajdžić’s big weakness is his injury record. He’s suffered multiple injuries over the years, many of which kept him out for long periods of times. He can improve the speed with which he operates with the ball at his feet. If he adds that, it would be another valuable string to his attacking bow.