Every four years, on the eve of the FIFA World Cup, the absence of ideas makes one find the old box in the attic and take out the story of Yugoslavia and their football team.
The remembrance of the "European Brazilians," as they were nicknamed back in the days, and some of their generations, like the one from 1990 that reached the World Cup quarter-finals only to be knocked out by Argentina on penalties, almost always ends up with the question "What if?"
What if Yugoslavia did not fall apart?
Of course, it did and in the worst possible way. In one of the most terrifying wars on European soil ever, more than 100,000 people lost their lives as communist Yugoslavia disintegrated into six different countries that are now FIFA members—Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Slovenia and Montenegro, while the status of Kosovo is still vague.
Some of these countries, like Croatia and Serbia, quickly established themselves as constants in the football world, something that Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had their World Cup debut in Brazil, and Slovenia are still looking to achieve.
The domestic leagues, on the other hand, are heavily downgraded—clubs from Yugoslavia were once powerhouses (to name just Red Star Belgrade, champions of Europe and the world in 1991), but today are just poor passersby and manufacturers for the rich clubs in the west.
The fact that literally dozens of players from what once used to be Yugoslavia play at the top level of European club football constantly leads us to the same question from the beginning of this piece: What if? How would a Yugoslav football team look now?
The question is, of course, absurd. The country has not existed for the last 23 years and things in the region, even football wise, have drastically changed.
However, one thing is still present in the region and remains quite popular—the comparisons. Who has the best defenders in the region? Who has the biggest earnings? Who scores the most goals? Or the one that—apologies for being absurd once again—a hypothetical Yugoslav coach would probably ask himself if he had to pick a team for international games.
Who is the better target man: Mario Mandzukic or Edin Dzeko?
In modern times, when versatility in football means everything, not many players prefer to be classified as a traditional target man.
As one of the definitions say, this is a striker "who is the target of passes from his teammates. A good target man will possess the strength to hold up the ball, hold off opponents and bring teammates into play. Target men are often tall, physical players who operate with their back to goal."
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another striker with Bosnian-Croatian (and therefore Balkan), roots, in his interview in FourFourTwo's Performance section explains what makes a good target man, and it seems that both Mandzukic and Dzeko evenly qualify for it.
One of the reasons why this summer Mario Mandzukic decided to swap his Bayern Munich shirt with Atletico Madrid's was the fact that his former boss Pep Guardiola is not a big fan of "an attacking player to whom high crosses are played, especially a tall forward," as this definition notes of a target man, a role Mario obviously fills.
Guardiola prefers his style to be a ground-passing one, and despite the fact that Mandzukic saved him more than once last season with his goals, the Croat always knew he was going to be one to depart this summer.
According to Soccerway stats, Mandzukic took part in total of 46 matches in different competitions (Bundesliga, DFB Cup, German Super Cup, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup) last season, scoring a total of 25 goals. He started in 35 occasions but was often replaced, collecting 3222 minutes in total.
At the same time, Edin Dzeko was often regarded as a super-sub for Manchester City last season. His goal tally stopped at No. 26; he played 19 minutes more than Mandzukic in total (3241 minutes), collecting 48 appearance (Premier league, FA and League Cup, Champions League) and 36 starts.
Both are the first-choice strikers in their national teams and both were the top scorers for their country last season. Mandzukic, who missed the World Cup opening because of suspension, played in 11 matches, scoring four goals. Dzeko, who is Bosnia-Herzegovina's all-time top goalscorer, netted seven goals in 12 appearances for his country.
As per Squawka (stats only for league matches), Mandzukic was the more useful in the air, scoring seven headers (Dzeko scored four) and converting four crosses from free-kicks (Dzeko zero). On the other hand, Dzeko scored twice from corner kicks (Mandzukic zero) and won more aerial duels in total (82 to 75).
Further playing with the numbers reveals that Mario provides exclusively in the box, having only two shots outside of it in Bundesliga this season, while Dzeko had 19 from distance. Even though the Bosnian averaged more passes (23 vs. 17.5) per match, in Guardiola's system Mandzukic had more assists (four to one) and more key passes (26 to 17).
In the last two seasons, Dzeko was often accused of being indifferent, languid and slow-paced, while, on the other hand, Mandzukic has been praised for his contribution in pressing game and huge work rate.
His heat map often covers much more space than Dzeko's. However, the versatility of both players is often under question and, as we see, the only thing that stats reveal is how similar the two are.
The question may be answered in the forthcoming campaign, in which Dzeko will probably have more chances in City now that Negredo is injured, while Mandzukic will try to become Atletico Madrid's key man.
For now the statistics might narrowly swing in Mandzukic's favour, if only for his greater contribution in providing chances for other players, but the case is far from closed just yet.