Ivan Šunjić is a 22 year old central midfielder who represents Croatia at international level. Blues have signed Šunjić from Dinamo Zagreb for a reported fee of 7 million euros, and he has signed a 5 year contract at St Andrews. Šunjić began his career at Dinamo, but was sold to city rivals Lokomotiva in 2016; then Dinamo re-signed Šunjić in 2018 but loaned him back to Lokomotiva for the rest of the season. Last season Šunjić played a starring role for Dinamo in their title winning side.
Dinamo Zagreb were clearly the best team in the Croatian top tier last season, comfortably scoring the most goals and conceding the least, with the underlying statistics backing this up. In terms of style, Dinamo were a possession-based team who pressed high to win the ball back when they lost it. Dinamo employed a variety of formations within the season, meaning Šunjić was asked to fulfil numerous roles within the midfield; most often he was the lone anchor of a midfield three or one half of a double pivot.
Without the Ball
Pep Clotet’s plan for Blues this season involves committing bodies forward, which will leave the team vulnerable to counter attacks by the opposition. The central midfielders will be required to plug gaps when the opposition break away in order to stall the attacks and break up play where possible. Another of Blues’ midfield recruits Dan Crowley has shown to be very ineffective defensively, so it is imperative that his midfield partners are able to compensate in this department.
While defensive statistics are not a great barometer of a player’s defensive abilities, they can give us an idea of a player’s competence out of possession. Šunjić was one of only two midfielders in the Croatian league who averaged more than 9.5 defensive duels per 90 minutes with a success rate above 62%. Šunjić’s approach involves biding his time, then pouncing when an opposition player takes a bad touch; he gets his foot to the ball and flicks it away, and this has shown to be very effective.
A weakness of Šunjić is his aerial ability, with the Croat winning only 37% of his aerial duels last season, however this is an area where Šunjić’s prospective midfield partner Gary Gardner excels; he won 57% of his aerial duels last season, so expect to see Gardner challenging for the initial header from goal kicks on both sides of the pitch in the coming season.
Šunjić made 5.1 interceptions per 90 minutes last season; this is a decent return for a central midfielder that put him 10th among CM’s in the league. However this figure is even more impressive given the fact that Dinamo averaged the second most possession of all teams; meaning their players had less opportunity to rack up defensive numbers. This is a testament to Šunjić’s ability to read play and his co-ordination which allows him to get his head or foot to the ball to intercept.
With the Ball
In Clotet’s Blues team, the midfielders will be assigned the task of making themselves available to receive passes off the centre backs in build-up play. They will then have to either recycle possession or turn upfield and progress the ball to the more advanced players, whether this be the wingbacks or the attackers.
Šunjić was a high volume passer who was very careful in possession last season; he was one of only 5 CM’s in the league who attempted more than 40 passes per 90 minutes and completed more than 86% of them. However he was not particularly adept at progressing the ball into advanced areas, averaging 6.9 attempted passes to the final third per 90, which places him 20th in the league among CM’s. This would suggest that Šunjić might be better suited to playing the role of a “pressure valve” who endeavours to provide a passing option to team mates during possession so that they can lay it off to him when under duress in order to relieve the pressure. Šunjić will then be able to use his accurate passing and sensible decision making to pick safe passes so that the team can maintain possession and mount another attack.
Šunjić has previously shown the ability to make late runs into the box and get on the end of cutbacks; in his last season with Lokomotiva he scored 6 goals, but at Dinamo he was given less license to get forward and as a result, did not get a goal last season. It will be interesting to see whether Clotet chooses to unlock this potential weapon, or opts for an approach similar to Dinamo’s where Šunjić’s priority is defensive solidity.
Šunjić is a highly rated prospect, who has been capped by Croatia’s senior team and captained the U21’s in the European Championships this summer. The transfer fee is a large outlay for Blues, especially considering their previous financial issues. However, this pre-season has shown that the biggest obstacle to Pep Clotet implementing his philosophy is the lack of a midfielder who is comfortable in possession. David Davis’ clumsiness on the ball has led to break-away goals for the opposition in two of Blues’ friendlies. The addition of Šunjić means Blues may have turned their biggest weakness into an area of strength, which is as valuable as any transfer can be.
The prospective midfield three of Ivan Šunjić, Gary Gardner and Dan Crowley offers a perfect blend of defensive stability, possession retention and ball progression. The skillsets of these players are complimentary of each other: Crowley’s defensive weakness is offset by the capabilities of Šunjić and Gardner, while Crowley will offer much more incisive passing than his fellow midfielders and Gardner’s aerial prowess will cover for Šunjić’s vulnerability in this area. Šunjić is the final building block of this holistic midfield unit that offers Clotet all the qualities he desires in this area.
Therefore, although the transfer fee may make some fans nervous, the fact that Šunjić is a young, talented player with huge potential and that he fills a dire need in Blues’ squad should alleviate some of these concerns. The long contract that Šunjić has signed also reduces the financial impact of the transfer fee with regards to financial fair play, so it seems that Blues have wised up to the ways in which FFP compliance can be achieved. Šunjić’s arrival is a further example of Blues implementing their recruitment strategy of identifying talent in lesser known leagues across Europe; this is a sensible approach that should offer the club value in the long term, while giving the fans a young, exciting team to get behind in the short term.