Dusan Vlahovic transfer: What to know about the Manchester City, Tottenham target from Serie A’s Fiorentina

As the transfer window winds down, Harry Kane is in limbo. He’s not fully at Tottenham Hotspur, the club he remains under contract to but is trying to force an exit from, nor is he yet at Manchester City, the club he’s trying to engineer his way to. So, as the clock ticks down, both teams are trying to protect themselves by seeking alternatives, looking for another striker to land so that when the transfer musical chairs stops, they’re protected if they’re the ones without Kane. Both sides (as well as Atletico Madrid), according to recent reporting from CBS Sports insider Fabrizio Romano, are looking at Dušan Vlahovic from Fiorentina. Fiorentina don’t want to sell, but when the Premier League money gets silly, things have a tendency to change quickly. 

The Serie A season gets underway this weekend and CBS Sports and Paramount+ is your new home for calcio Italiano, so for now we’ll potentially get to watch Vlahovic take on Jose Mourinho’s Roma on Sunday. So, what is it about Fiorentina’s young striker that’s caught they eye of some of the biggest clubs in the world.

How good is Vlahovic?

Let’s start with the basics: Vlahovic is young and tall. Anytime a player is getting unquestioned first-team minutes as a starter at only 21 years old, that’s a good sign. Throw in the fact that he’s 6-foot-2 and is still physically developing and you can understand why teams are immediately drawn to him. Then, there’s his production. Last season, Vlahovic scored an impressive 21 goals. The bottom line is that anytime a player that young scores that many goals, he’s going to get some attention.

There are some caveats, however, because there are always some caveats. First, six of those goals came from the penalty spot. So we’re really looking at 15 open-play goals. That’s not bad, but it’s not quite as eye catching as surpassing the 20-goal threshold. Do the math out and you find him scoring from open play at a rate of 0.46 goals per 90 minutes, which is pretty close to the common wisdom that good strikers score about once every other match. Those goals are also mostly in line with his expected goals numbers, which came in last season at 0.42 non-penalty xG per 90. Again, it’s more sold than spectacular, but it is solid.

That 0.42 non-penalty xG per 90 number was the 16th best in Serie A last season (among players who played more than 900 minutes). That’s a pretty encouraging sign from a 21-year-old striker, but it’s also not quite as impressive as the top-line number of 21 goals, which was the fourth-most in Italy’s top flight. Those six penalties make a big difference. Also, at least somewhat worrying are his fairly modest shot numbers. Vlahovic only took 80 non-penalty shots last season, or 2.45 per 90.That was only the 36th highest number among players in Serie A with over 900 minutes played. Is that a red flag? It might be, but breaking it down involves figuring out just how he, and Fiorentina played.

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What kind of striker is Vlahovic

Pinning down exactly how Vlahovic plays is a tricky endeavor, in part because the Fiorentina Vlahovic played for in 2019-20 when he got almost 1,500 minutes as a 20-year-old was very different than the one he played for last season. Their top-line numbers may not show it, a decrease from 51 to 47 goals seems small, but the xG tells a bigger tale, as it declined from just under 55 to just under 46. And even more crucially, Fiorentina’s shot totals took a nose-dive. During the 2019-20 season, the squad took 537 shots, and last season that figure plummeted to just 366.

In that context, it sure seems like Vlahovic’s relatively light shot numbers are more a product of the Fiorentina system than anything lacking in his game. And sure enough, you look in the numbers and two years ago he was taking 3.80 shots per 90 minutes before the drop to 2.45 last season. On top of that, it’s incredibly encouraging that Vlahovic’s xG figures actually increased as his shooting volume decreased, going from 0.37 non-penalty xG per 90 to 0.42. That seems to suggest that he was getting much better shots last season than the season before, and well, when you look at the two shot charts back to back, it becomes clear that’s very much the case.

Vlahovic’s shots from the 2019-20 season
Vlahovic’s shots from the 2020-21 season

What this suggests is that there is relatively little to worry about from Vlahovic’s relatively low shot totals. What happened was that as he went from a rotation player two seasons ago to a regular starter last season, Fiorentina changed the way they played and he adapted with them, going from a relatively profligate gunner to a player who hunted much higher-quality shots. And, in fact, one stat that didn’t change much is that when Vlahovic was on the field, he took about a quarter of his team’s shots. In fact, his usage rate actually increased from 24.3% of his team’s shots two seasons ago when he was on the field to 25.6% last season. So, while he was taking less shots, it seems likely that was almost entirely a function of how Fiorentina approached matches.

Can Vlahovic replace Harry Kane

There’s a lot to like about Vlahovic, but there is absolutely no way he is ready to step in and replace Harry Kane’s production, either for Spurs should they lose him, or for City should they be unable to sign him. For starters, Kane is a better scorer than Vlahovic, taking 3.88 non-penalty shots per 90 and scoring 0.50 goals per 90 on 0.50 xG. But, even more importantly, Vlahovic has not, as of yet, been able to do all the non-scoring things that Kane displays. Kane’s creative work is more or less completely absent from Vlahovic’s skillset, at least so far. Kane played 26.5 passes per match last season, Vlahovic barely played 18 (a number which was roughly the same the season before for him as well). Kane creates almost 1.5 chances per 90, Vlahovic only 0.5. For Spurs, 36.5% of sequences which ended in the final third involved Kane at some point, that number was only 28.7% for Vlahovic at Fiorentina. Full half of Spurs sequences of play that ended in a shot had Kane involved, for Vlahovic that number is 35.5%.

Kane is one of the best strikers in the game and Vlahovic is a promising young forward from Fiorentina. To say that at 21 years of age the Serbian isn’t ready to fill the shoes of England’s talisman isn’t a knock on him, but it is the reality. Vlahovic is a decent striker now, one who has provided decent goal return for a bad team at a young age. There are lots of facets to his game that suggest he could mature into a star over the next few years. But he’s not there yet. Buying Vlahovic is a bet on the future. It’s a very reasonable gamble that as Kane careens towards his 30s and Vlahovic enters his mid-20s, the paths of their production will cross, with the younger player outpacing the older one sooner rather than later. But even that optimistic scenario remains a few years away. Vlahovic appears to be a good prospect, but despite his goal return last season that’s all that he is right now. He’s not Kane, but all that buyers can hope is that in a few years he’ll become something like him.

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