Once Robert Lewandowski joins Bayern Munich in the summer, coach Pep Guardiola will have four options for Mario Mandzukic.
He could decide to play him alongside his new signing from Borussia Dortmund; he could rotate the two in the line-up; he could demote one to the status of an alternative for the other. Finally, he could agree (though that doesn’t depend entirely on him) to let Mandzukic leave the club.
Only the last solution looks realistic.
If Pep’s entire coaching history and philosophy is anything to go by, then there’s no way he’ll field two out-and-out strikers. Lewandowski isn’t coming to be a benchwarmer or a rotation player and Bayern surely wouldn’t have gone through all the trouble of snatching him from their rivals (something that did hurt their image, at least a bit) if they didn’t think he was exactly what they needed. Comparing the two players’ stats to draw conclusions on who is better is ultimately pointless, because the Pole’s style is just better suited for the way the European champions like to play under this coach.
Mandzukic turns 28 just before the World Cup, where he will spearhead Croatia’s attack (though he’s set to miss the opener against Brazil due to red-card suspension). At the peak of his fitness level and enjoying the best football of his career, he’s also not the kind of guy who would happily accept playing second fiddle—and he is, in fact, set to become even less than that with Lewandowski on board. Guardiola is well-known for having a thing for strikerless formations—and both Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller are capable of playing as a false nine.
So regardless of good form and all the goals he scored—Mandzukic is currently Bundesliga’s top scorer, netting one more than Lewandowski—it will only make sense for Bayern to sell him. But where should he go?
Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan have all been speculated, at one point or another, as his possible future destinations. One potential suitor sounds more intriguing than all the others, though—and that’s Real Madrid.
It’s not merely the status of the club in question that is appealing, nor the evident need at the Bernabeu for a new option up front. Madrid and the big Croat may truly be a perfect match.
The thing with Mandzukic is that he’s only a top player if used in a certain way and with right team-mates around him. He’s a good, but not a superb finisher. His technical skills—first touch, passing and dribbling—leave a lot to be desired.
But he’s a world-class poacher and arguably the best centre-forward in football when it comes to playing in the air, having scored a whopping 43.5 per cent of his Bayern goals this season (10 out of 23, across all competitions) with his head. He won precisely half of his aerial duels with opposing defenders (74/148, via WhoScored), or three per game.
With the Croatia national team, who have recently been rather poor at crossing the ball, his performances are usually far less impressive. There were times when he had been reduced to little more than a mean pressing machine, running around the pitch and fouling opponents, but barely touching the ball or taking a shot all game.
Sometimes it happens at Bayern as well. Against stronger opponents, when Guardiola makes the team play in a style similar to his world-conquering Barcelona, patiently building with short passes and looking to create space rather than wildly pushing in all areas, Mandzukic can be almost invisible.
A prime example of such a game was last month’s Champions League match against Arsenal at the Emirates, when he touched the ball just 11 times, making four accurate passes and two off-target shots. True, he was subbed off after 64 minutes, but only because he was practically useless.
And while defensive play is another thing Mandzukic is extremely good at, that alone isn’t enough for elite-level football. If he wants to stay on top, he needs to find a team that can put his strengths to optimal use.
In Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, Real Madrid have arguably the best pair of wingers in the world. Though under Carlo Ancelotti they have evolved from the “run-and-gun” football of the Mourinho era, they still thrive on quick transition and immediate, aggressive pressing. They also have Luka Modric, Mandzukic's favourite Croatia team-mate.
Both Ronaldo and Bale like to have the ball at their feet, they love to take on defenders one-on-one and shoot and cross into the box from every opportunity they get. They don’t necessarily need a striker who is technically apt, who can keep and pass the ball; what they need is someone who can convert some of those balls that are crossed, passed and deflected around the box. If that “someone” is as physically strong and enduring as they are, if he can be a constant menace to defenders and drive them into making mistakes when passing the ball, then he would be most welcome.
Karim Benzema is having his best season at the Bernabeu yet and he looks set to get a contract extension. However, Madrid’s faith in youngsters Alvaro Morata and Jese hasn’t quite paid off yet and the club will certainly be in the market for another forward come the summer.
With the Frenchman doing so well, superstar signings like Luis Suarez or Diego Costa appear less likely. While not exactly a “Galactico,” Mandzukic will probably be available for somewhere in the range of €20-30 million and he would offer a very different, yet very appealing alternative to Benzema.
But that begs some key questions. Would Bayern be willing to sell to one of their main European rivals? Would Pep Guardiola, a Barcelona man through and through, be OK with strengthening his mother club’s archrivals?
Also, would the glamour of Madrid be enough to lure Mandzukic, or he would be more inclined to choose a club where he might not fit so well, but would be guaranteed starter status?