Profiling Red Bull Salzburg's promsing Serbian centre-back
Who is Strahinja Pavlović?
It wasn’t too long ago that Serbia had a reputation for producing uncompromising, hard-nosed defenders. Nemanja Vidić and Branislav Ivanović in particular operated at the highest levels of European football for over a decade.
But ever since those stalwarts’ careers started to slow down, it’s been rather quiet on the defensive end of the production line in Serbia, with Nikola Milenković of Fiorentina being the exception to the rule.
Serbian fans were therefore hopeful when AS Monaco picked up then-19-year-old Strahinja Pavlović from FK Partizan for a hefty €10 million fee. Just a few months later, he made his senior debut for the national team. However, Pavlović quickly became the fifth choice centre-back in Niko Kovač’s Monaco and a loan to satellite club, Cercle Brugge, followed.
During this period, Dragan Stojković took over the Serbian national team and, from day one, had a spot in his starting 11 reserved for Pavlović. Even though he was the youngest player, Pavlović was one of the pleasant surprises in Serbia’s run to the World Cup. Simultaneously, his short leave to Belgium was also a success; he returned to Monte Carlo with hopes of becoming of a regular in the season that followed.
Initially, things did look more promising as he got a couple of starts. However, after he caused a penalty and got sent off against Lille, he was indefinitely banished to the stands.
Pavlović spent the second half of the season on an underwhelming loan at FC Basel, and his performances for the national team started to suffer as well. It became clear that Monaco had no intention of continuing with him and he’d have to look for a new club.
The critics were all over Pavlović and expectations weren’t high in regard to his new club, so you can imagine the surprise when he joined Red Bull Salzburg last summer. Nevertheless, it has been one of the best U21 transfers of the season so far. He’s quickly become a fan favourite in Austria, and has had the chance to play on a huge stage in the UEFA Champions League.
Strahinja Pavlović's style of play
It’s not often you see a centre-back who is a show-stopper, but Pavlović is that type of defender. He’s an aggressive, physically-dominant, all-action defender – as relentless as he is uncompromising.
His style of play can come across as chaotic – which it is at times – but in Salzburg they are in the process of turning the instinctive centre-back into one who channels his aggression and uses it in a clever way.
For Serbia, Pavlović plays as the left-sided wide centre-back. However, for his club, he’s part of a central partnership in a back four. With his eagerness to attack, I would say he’s more suited to playing in a back three, but the alternative doesn’t pose a problem.
Scouted Football on Patreon
Exclusive analysis of all things youth football, from detailed player reports to in-depth coverage of youth tournaments, and so much more. Just £3 a month for regular posts.
Let’s start dissecting his game with his physical profile. One thing you notice right off the bat is his height, coming in at 194 centimetres tall. But unlike a lot of tall centre-backs, he’s not slow. Far from it, actually.
His recorded top speed of 34.1 km/h in the Champions League is the highest at Salzburg, along with Nico Seiwald and speedster Noah Okafor. It makes him a perfect fit for teams that defend high up the pitch, as he is a high-intensity runner with excellent recovery pace.
Pavlović is exceptionally strong and uses his tall frame and long reach well in duels, as he frequently overpowers the opposition. Aerially, he’s also dominant, particularly on the defensive end. He can, however, still improve the timing of his jump on high balls that travel longer. In the opposition box, he regularly wins the header, but still lacks the consistent accuracy that is needed to become a serious goal-threat.
When the opposition has the ball, Pavlović is an aggressive, front-foot defender. He anticipates well for the most part and is able to quickly adjust his running angles to put pressure on the receiver. This is his instinctive style of defending which brings along a plethora of risks, as he has a tendency to abandon shape and overcommit, which can leave his team exposed.
Whereas most sides would aggressively try to correct this behaviour, at Salzburg, it’s encouraged as part of their organised chaos. That’s not to say he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, as the improvement in tactical discipline since joining Salzburg is evident.
Pavlović is showing a better sense of decision-making; learning when to delay, how to force opponents into favourable areas, no longer focused as much on the ball. And, although he still has a long way to go, the early signs are promising.
Closer to goal, the pattern remains the same. Pavlović is extremely proactive with his defending. He scans well and is often the one to snuff out passes and crosses. Pavlović also has excellent timing and positioning when it comes to blocking shots. He’s not afraid to put his body on the line.
In that sense he has shades of the legendary Nemanja Vidić, and there is an even more striking similarity: Vidić was known for his ability to make key tackles at decisive moments, and Pavlović is cut from the same cloth. He has a knack for making crucial last-ditch tackles and blocks and shows great decisiveness in those situations, as he’s never afraid to commit.
This brings us to his mental fortitude – one of the things that make him a remarkable character, particularly at the young age of 21. He’s not one to waver: even when out of form, Pavlović didn’t shy away from responsibility, but rather confronted it head-on. However, when he does make a mistake, he has the habit of wanting to overcompensate which leads to even more mistakes.
Where he greatly differs from Vidić is his on-ball ability. Give Pavlović a bit of space and he’ll immediately drive forward with the ball, if possible, all the way to the opposition goal. Although his ball control isn’t particularly refined, his progressive carries are nonetheless effective most of the time, as he barges through opposition like a freight train. His decision-making still needs to be improved, as he does on occasion try to dribble in dangerous areas of the pitch.
When it comes to distribution, Pavlović is definitely not afraid to play progressive or more adventurous passes. He generally opens up his body well and creates the right angles. The weight of his passing is still inconsistent, however, and when left without viable options, he’s quick to play the long ball instead of looking for the opportunity to recycle.
As the season develops, his responsibility in Salzburg’s build-up increases. Overall, his passing is definitely a net-plus, although the execution can still be improved quite a bit.
Forecasting Strahinja Pavlovićs future
Red Bull Salzburg and Pavlović are a match made in heaven so far. It would be foolish for him to think about leaving the Austrian club any time soon. There are still plenty of areas in his game that need to be polished and developed, and having the chance to play high-level European matches is key to his growth as a footballer.
The natural progression for Pavlović would be RB Leipzig. Stepping up the Red Bull ladder to a team with a similar approach in a league that would suit him as a player makes a lot of sense, but staying at Salzburg for another season would benefit all parties.
If Serbia are to be successful at the World Cup, Pavlović – despite being the youngest projected starter in Stojković’s team – will have to play a key role. With his pace, aggressive style of defending and progression from the back, his impact is enormous already. This could lead to new suitors, but even if it all goes well, Salzburg remains the perfect club for now.
Support Scouted Football
Strahinja Pavlović is a physically-dominant centre-back that is good at making decsiive defensive interventions. He’s also an effective ball-carrier, driving into space.
Strahinja Pavlović’s main weaknesses are his propensity to overcommitt defensively, erratic decision-making and a lack of refinement as a passer and ball-player.