Mateus Carvalho takes a look at an unknown future superstar, Nemanja Antonov
This article tries to introduce one of the members of the so called ‘Serbian golden generation’,which is built on the notorious work of all Serbian clubs alike to promote young national talents . That is reflected in stellar participations in international competitions, with the peak of it all being established with the U20 World Cup victory in 2015. This young generation consists of the brightness of the likes of Andrija Zivkovic, Nemanja Maksimovic, Uros Djurdjevic, Marko Grujic, Milinkovic-Savic and the player being presented below- Nemanja Antonov, who happens to be a talented and reliable left-back and has begun to make a name for himself in Europe and in the top-level football landscape.
Who is Nemanja Antonov?
Born in Pančevo (a city in the province of Vojvodina, near the Serbian capital of Belgrade) on the 6th of May 1995, Nemanja Antonov started to play precisely at OFK Beograd, a capital city club from the first tier of Serbian football and has maintained itself in the middle of the table from quite some time now.
He completed all his youth upbringing in that side and made the transition to the professional level there itself. The leap to the senior OFK’s team was made as an 18-year old (in the 2012/2013 season) as he impressed everyone at the youth ranks and that move was a natural step for the young Serbian left-back. All this buzz around Antonov had its repercussions among the Serbian national team’s directors, who selected the young defender to represent his country at an early age and he did not disappoint. He became a regular at all youth teams all the way up to the U-21s team, for which he played in the most recent European Championships in Poland.
After having played as a starter for two years at OFK Beograd (with a total of 46 games played), the first big transfer came for Antonov. In the summer of 2015, he signed a long-term contract worth 1.2 million euros with Grasshoppers, a historic Swiss club . The move was set to be a massive one due to Antonov’s stellar spell for the Serbian U-20s side at the World Cup, when he played every minute in their path to the final win and the mastery he showed in the left-back spot became a pretext for a number of comparisons with Aleksandar Kolarov, the former Manchester City and current Roma Serbian left-back. But the interest of bigger clubs was not new for the Serbian starlet as he had delivered very intriguing performances the year before at the U-19 European Championship where the Serbian golden generation stunningly reached the semi-finals of the competition, only to be eliminated by Portugal.
With his move to Grasshoppers, Antonov showed just how mature he is. As a lot of bigger clubs looked for his services, the young left-back opted for a club that offered a boost in terms of competitive level and collective ambitions, apart from the opportunity to be a regular in the senior team, rather than playing of the reserves of a European giant and being loaned. He was looking for regularity and stability and the decision to take part in the Swiss championship was definitely the right one. His last two seasons have individually been all that he hoped for (although modest for a club that struggled), with 54 matches played and some participation in the Europa League. The prize was the aforementioned presence in the U-21 Euro where once again got the opportunity to display all his quality on the international landscape.
What is his Style of Play?
As his Grasshoppers coach Pierluigi Tami once said Nemanja Antonov is “a strong defender both technically and physically”. And that might very well be the point of departure to the endeavour of describing Antonov’s style of play.
In fact, the Serbian left-back is distinguished not only by his technical skills, but also by his imposing physical structure, using it to enhance his defensive efficiency and scaring opposite wingers that might come across him. This is a combination of qualities that right-backs or left-backs have, and one that the “Serbian school” is known to produce (here it is necessary to recuperate the comparison between Antonov and Kolarov, a good standpoint to illustrate Nemanja’s style of play). But from this, it might seem that the Serbian defender is an utterly straightforward player, limited to soberly delivering his task in the pitch, which would already be interesting for any coach.
However, Antonov increases his contribution to any team by being an extremely vertiginous left-back, not shying away from dribbling and trying to actively participate in the build-up from his position. He does not restrict himself to lateral movements, liking and looking for disrupting movements from his position to the centre of the pitch whether with the ball or with clever and pernicious passes, exploring the half-spaces in the opposition’s defensive organisation. All in all, he is a versatile and skillful player with a varied set of solutions to offer.
Defensively, Nemanja Antonov is a very assertive and intelligent player. He seems to be able to weigh in the pros and cons of every decision he makes on the pitch at a speed that does not compromise the execution of the actions he decides to take; and he is almost right in making them. For example, in plays where the majority of the left-backs would kick arbitrarily the ball out of the pitch when there was no need for that, Antonov would look for a safe way to continue an offensive play for his team and giving a boost to the build-up phase. That makes him not a mere reactive player, but rather a proactive one; not only expecting the adversaries moves and tackling his opponents accordingly, but also looking to smartly intercept every play, a tendency that he has been able to impose with more or less difficulty (more challenging antagonists might pose him greater difficulties in terms of tactical positioning as we will discuss below).
What are his Strengths?
For starters and as we have referred above, Antonov is a technically developed player. He reveals a fairly decent dribbling capacity, agility and great pace with or without the ball. His speed helps him in defensive transitions as he is able to recuperate with ease after an attacking movement, not compromising his side’s balance. Furthermore, he presents a great perception of the game, easily encountering his teammates with precise crosses and long passes. His passing capacity might be one of his most distinctive characteristics, considering that we are talking of a is a left-back and not a midfielder or a playmaker of any sort.
In addition, Nemanja has developed amazing tackling and interception capacities, always showing an excellent ratio of won balls during a game and creating a perception of being almost insurmountable in his adversaries. He is very efficient in holding back and “locking” the opposition’s player he is marking, which enhances these defensive qualities I have just mentioned. Also contributing to his constant and reliable performances is his concentration in the moments where he is asked to rest deep and wait for attacks to come his away. He reveals great focus in this process, boosting to great lengths the completion of his defensive tasks.
What are his Weaknesses?
Nemanja’s concentration and marking capacity is often compromised by his tactical understanding of the game. From time to time he remains too intent on not letting go his direct opponent as he is unable to recognise the broader movements or nuances that cause overloads or other kinds of misbalances in his area of action that might leave him in great peril.
This was a flaw evidenced by his transition to Grasshoppers, that plays in a different style to that of that OFK Beograd (the latter playing in a defensive-oriented approach and the first trying to dominate and impose a possession based style); but has been an area where he has grown significantly as a player. Nevertheless, he can still improve.
Pierluigi Tami told that he worked with Antonov on those tactical aspects, showing him a lot of videos and trying to teach how to perform. This intensive work has paid off and the Serbian youngster has augmented his quantitative and qualitative participation in Grasshoppers’s matches (he played 8 more games this last season compared to his first one at the Swiss side and with more convincing showings).
Nemanja would further improve his performances if he showed the same level of focus and maturity to the external aspects of the game (his psychological strength for example) that he does in defensive tasks all during the matches. The weight of being a world champion and his move, alone, to Switzerland, showed that Antonov is a player that needs constant monitoring in order to be always motivated; an argument put forth once again by his coach. However, I consider these are capabilities one acquires once a player plays more and more. Such a clever and competent player will gain wisdom and fortitude due to that. And the succession of Kolarov thus, is more and more assured.
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