Croatia’s World Cup campaign ultimately ended in disappointment, but the impressive performances of their winger Ivan Perisic provided a silver lining. Having proved his worth to the national team, he could now be set for a big club move—and the Premier League would arguably offer an ideal setting for his further development.
Perisic scored a consolation goal as Croatia bowed out to a superbly organized Mexico side in their deciding group game in Brazil. Back home, the 3-1 defeat prompted a torrent of criticism toward the team, particularly aimed at manager Niko Kovac. Beyond all that negativity and self-doubt, the local media barely registered the plaudits that came Perisic’s way.
According to FIFA, the 25-year-old finished the group stage as second in the Castrol Index ranking, only behind Colombia’s James Rodriguez and ahead of some of the superstars who produced really memorable displays in Brazil, such as Karim Benzema, Arjen Robben and Neymar. Perisic is actually the only player in the top 10 who didn’t get to play in the round of 16.
To say Perisic was the unlikely star man for his country ahead of the tournament would be a huge understatement, though.
In recent times, he had regularly been among the most criticized players in the national team and some argued he shouldn’t even be a starter for Croatia. He was out of form, had bad luck with recurring injuries and struggled to cope with his ever-changing role in the tactical tinkering of Kovac’s predecessor, Igor Stimac. Only after the change at the helm did Croatia finally settle for a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Perisic as one of the very attacking wingers.
To those who have been following him more closely last season, the player’s explosion at the World Cup didn’t come as such a huge surprise.
At a first glance, his basic 2013/14 Bundesliga stats for Wolfsburg look decent enough: 10 goals and five assists in 33 appearances. However, six of those goals came in the final five matches, as Perisic finally fully established himself as an important player for the club, starting on the left wing. It seems that his confidence sky-rocketed, because right from the start of Croatia’s preparations for the World Cup he looked a different player: Perisic 2.0, if you will.
He scored both goals in a pre-tournament friendly against Mali and generally left the best impression by some distance. Comments in the Croatian media said that was his first truly good game for the national squad in two years. The fact that Kovac decided to use him in a very similar role as his club coach Dieter Hecking surely helped.
At the World Cup, Perisic continued to impress even if his team wasn’t always up to the task. He was consistently good, but his finest moments came in the 4-0 win against Cameroon. First he provided a superb and unselfish assist for Ivica Olic to open up the scoring, then scored himself with a run down the left side and a finish reminiscent of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale.
But Perisic is not simply a poor man’s Bale. His style and positional history are very different.
While his talent, speed and technique were never in question, he is an unorthodox winger who only recently became fully accustomed to the position. And that was probably crucial for his current ascent.
Playing as a "No. 10" in the youth ranks of Hajduk Split, Perisic was dubbed the "next Aljosa Asanovic"—even if he was much, much faster than Croatia’s 1998 World Cup icon. At age 17, he moved to Sochaux in France and played for their "B" side before being transferred to Belgium’s Club Brugge in 2009. There he mainly played as second striker.
In 2011, after becoming Jupiler Pro League’s top scorer and Player of the Year at age 22, he was signed by Borussia Dortmund in a €5 million deal. He won the Bundesliga and Cup double in his first season there, playing regularly in domestic competitions as well as in the Champions League. He scored nine goals and made six assists while playing either as left-winger or attacking midfielder.
But with the arrival of Marco Reus into the team, Perisic found his playing opportunities limited. He publicly stated his dissatisfaction, which resulted in him falling completely out of favour with Jurgen Klopp and being offloaded to Wolfsburg halfway into the 2012/13 season.
In retrospect, that must have been a shock to the player who had previously experienced nothing but steady improvement. It was at that time that he started to produce below-par performances for the national squad as well. Injuries and illness surely didn’t help either, but Perisic managed to get back on track after a year or so and hit high form in time for the World Cup.
While he is really fast and likes to take on defenders one-on-one, he’s far from a typical winger. His crossing is below average, but he’s actually very good in the air, likes to cut inside and sneak into the box and he can hold on to the ball very well. He seems perfect for a system with a fluid three behind the striker.
Everton emerged as early contenders for his signature this summer, as per Simon Jones of the Daily Mail, and the figure mentioned is £8 million. However, it was clear that other clubs will soon join the race. As per Jure Bohoric of Sky Sports, a number of Serie A clubs—including Napoli, Internazionale, AC Milan and Roma—are interested as well.
But the impression is Perisic would be much better suited for the highly energetic style of the Premier League. Not just for Everton, but for some other Premier League clubs as well. Arsenal first comes to mind—Arsene Wenger could really use a player who is versatile enough to play in any position behind the striker, but also direct enough to provide a real goal-scoring threat from any of those roles.
The previously reported price might have risen due to Perisic’s performance at the World Cup; but with that form, he could be a real bargain buy. Whether it’s Everton, Arsenal or someone else, Premier League clubs should really consider signing him.