Meet Duje Ćaleta-Car, the big-money signing who could be Marseille’s equivalent to Javier Mascherano in his prime, and the long-term answer to Croatia’s problems at centre-back.
Who is Ćaleta-Car?
Stepping up to the ball, on the half-way line, Ćaleta-Car laced his through ball into the path of Hwang-Hee Chan. He deftly put Red Bull Salzburg 3-1 up against Lazio in the Europa League quarter-finals.
With Salzburg needing at least four goals to qualify for the semi-finals, after losing 4-1 in the first leg and falling behind in this one, there was no room for anyone to choke under pressure. Amazingly, this was accomplished; Salzburg scored three goals in four minutes to go 4-1 up.
It was a similar story in the semi-final, with Salzburg losing 2-0 in the first leg. At the Red Bull Arena, Ćaleta-Car brought the ball out of defence and threaded it through to Amadou Haidara, who then ran past a swarm of Marseille players and hit the back of the net. Salzburg only went out on that night after conceding in extra-time, with Marseille’s only shot on target.
Watching on helplessly as his teammates missed so many chances, Ćaleta-Car’s hopes of winning the 2017-18 Europa League faded away.
Ćaleta-Car’s statistics were below-par compared to the leading defenders of the tournament:
|2017-18 Europa League||Duje Ćaleta-Car||Calum Chambers||Adil Rami||José Giménez||Shkodran Mustafi||Aymeric Laporte||Diego Godín||Paulo Miranda||Sotiris Papagiannopoulos|
|Tackles per 90||0.5||1.2||0.9||1.3||2.4||1.7||1.8||1.2||2.5|
|Tackles per Foul||0.41||4||1.5||1.||5||3.4||3||1||1.786|
|Tackle Success %||62.5||55.||60||76.471||61.538||73.913||85.714||66.||96.154|
|Interceptions per 90||0.6||2||1.8||2.1||2||1.3||1.5||2.2||2.1|
|Aerial duels won per 90||2.9||4.1||3.1||2.7||2.9||3.5||2.5||5.2||3.3|
|Aerial duel Success %||74.359||71.93||75.61||65.854||72.5||66.038||49.02||74.286||75|
|Total key passes (long)||4(2)||0||0||0||7(1)||1(0)||0||1(0)||0|
Despite being an inefficient tackler and often missing out on interceptions, Ćaleta-Car was a captivating talent.
Consequently, this is how drastically his transfer value skyrocketed, as per Transfermarkt:
Lazio website The Laziali described him as “mostly a wall to stop smaller forwards with his size” but also “a play-maker in certain situations”, as “Caleta likes to use his strong kick to play lobbing through-balls up to the front”. They supplemented this by pointing out how Car “currently sits at a career 86.4% pass completion according to wyscout, with 52.2% of his long passes being accurate”.
Seeming like a potentially world-class talent who just needs fine-tuning is a recurring narrative.
Five years ago, at just sixteen years old, Ćaleta-Car travelled with his Pasching teammates to compete against Estoril in Europa League qualifying.
Although he played no part as they lost the two games, he was recognised as an official squad member on Portuguese website MaisFutebol.
Only a matter of months later, he played every minute in Croatia’s U-17 World Cup, before becoming a regular at club level.
According to Šibenskiportal, that was enough to convince Red Bull Salzburg to finalise the transfer the next summer. Such was his reputation in the game, the transfer required lawyers of the HNS to assist them in the legal transactions of the transfer, finding a “compromise solution” that would satisfy Šibenik, Pasching and Salzburg.
However, in 2015-16, when Ćaleta-Car first broke into the Red Bull Salzburg team, their start to the season was “catastrophic” in the words of their own English website. His partnership with Paulo Miranda “showed its unfamiliarity against experienced sides like Malmö FF and Dinamo Minsk”; the experienced pair of Christian Schwegler and Christoph Leitgeb were “sorely missed”.
Ćaleta-Car described himself as having to grow “to meet the pressure and the increasingly big responsibility”, as he “won’t always be the talent or the youngster, after all”.
Despite playing at U-17, U-18, U-19 and U-21 level for the Croatian national team, and playing senior football since 15 years old, Ćaleta-Car was only considered for the senior team in the build-up to Euro 2016.
Even then, Ćaleta-Car admitted “you have to be realistic so you don’t get disappointed” about his prospects of being selected, even though he was previously called up and Salzburg eventually won the double.
This was despite Croatia’s dearth of options in that area, exacerbated by Dejan Lovren being omitted “due to his involvement in the Mamić trial”, as reported by Total Croatia News.
Given that the article also reports Alen Halilović not being picked “for the mere reason of Mamić not having any financial interest in his future transfer, just as he was part of the team while Mamić had the gain of it in the past”, it’s difficult to know what to make of the situation.
After all, Ćaleta-Car had no ties with former HNS president ‘puppet-master’ Zdravko Mamić, and then-manager Ante Čačić gave highly dubious reasons for leaving Lovren and Halilović out at the time.
Lovren allegedly had to “be a team player” and it was in Halilović’s “best interest to spend the summer training with his club”.
This summer, Ćaleta-Car was the only member of Croatia’s 2013 U-17 World Cup to also be selected to represent the senior team in Russia. Although he still only has two senior caps, both the Croatian national team and Marseille have clearly seen his exploits with Red Bull Salzburg in last season’s Europa League and are fully convinced in projecting him to be a future superstar.
Ćaleta-Car is the epitome of a ‘stopper’ at centre-back.
His statistics in last season’s Europa League indicate he loves an aerial battle and wins the clear majority of them; an impression matched when watching him.
He is also prepared to cover any area of the pitch, provided he stays tight to his assigned marker and can assist with the team’s high pressing.
However, when teammates have been caught pressing high up in another area of the pitch, his awareness and tireless work rate enable him to frantically take up a covering position as quickly as possible.
This can be through holding an offside trap
Or simply dropping deeper than his teammates
When this worked, it was invaluable to his teammates. According to Whoscored, throughout the 2017/18 Europa League, Red Bull Salzburg averaged the second highest tackles per game in the entire competition, and sixth highest fouls per game.
Against Borussia Dortmund, fansite Fear the Wall described them as “having more energy, more fight, and more creativity”. Ćaleta-Car’s partnerships with Paulo Miranda, and later André Ramalho, were integral towards the team taking the game to their opponents and allowing the attackers to close their opponents down high up the pitch, without leaving space for them to play long balls.
He only missed one game during their entire run, and that was due to suspension.
However, Ćaleta-Car’s uber-aggressive positioning, combined with tight player marking and sometimes ineffective recoveries, did cost Salzburg chances and goals.
There are numerous examples of him being on the wrong side of his opponent.
Ćaleta-Car is also prone to miscuing general defensive responses which most elite centre-backs take for granted.
However, in a paradoxical way, these flaws are part of a complete package that could add a different dimension to any team prepared to use Ćaleta-Car correctly.
In some ways, his style mirrors that of Javier Mascherano when he entered English territory.
In Guide to the Modern Game, The Secret Footballer divulged: “When I played against Mascherano he was just another holding midfield player that our team had to navigate around… When Liverpool lost the ball, Mascherano would go haring towards it and, so long as you could bypass him, you were at Liverpool’s back four.”
His team apparently moved Mascherano around the pitch “like a moth to the flame”.
Yet a matter of years later, Barcelona bought him as a centre-half, and the trophies followed.
Where Mascherano was rash, hyperactive and undisciplined at Liverpool, he was strong, quick across the ground and brave at Barcelona. He was the perfect cover for all the world-class talent ahead of him.
“Being a centre-back for Barça is not like being a centre-back for any other team,” Mascherano later remarked. “The areas you inhibit are very similar to those I’d inhibit playing in midfield. Often, in terms of where we press, Busquets and I are practically in the same line.”
The situation is obviously not identical, with Mascherano being just 1.72m tall at the time, and not possessing anything like Ćaleta-Car’s aerial spring.
That said, the aggression and risk of his pressing, combined with his comfort when moving into midfield with the ball, draws clear parallels.
“I receive the ball facing the pitch, not with my back to the play”, Mascherano adroitly declared in the same interview; this seems to be at the front of Ćaleta-Car’s mind when he positions himself.
On the ball, Ćaleta-Car is comfortable shifting the ball to the other side of the pitch, to make space for his team to move forward.
He can also carry the ball out of defence on a regular basis.
As already suggested by his statistics, Ćaleta-Car specialises at opening up opposition defences through his piercing long range passes.
This tendency to lunch unexpected through balls can strike uncertainty into the hearts of opposition defenders; this directly resulted in Hwang-Hee Chan’s aforementioned goal.
How does this translate to Marseille and the Croatia National Team?
For Rudi Garcia and Marseille, the goal is adding some youthfulness and energy into their backline.
In the two legs against Red Bull Salzburg, the three centre-backs who played were Adil Rami, Luiz Gustavo and Rolando.
According to So Foot, this acquisition came just after Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud warned: “ We have planned to invest very significant amounts in the acquisition of new players.” Beating Sevilla and Lyon to Ćaleta-Car’s signature, this transfer symbolises a change in Marseille’s transfer strategy towards signing promising young men courted all over Europe.
This is a closer match to Rudi Garcia’s policy at Roma.
In his two-and-a-half seasons there, he did not complete a single permanent singing of a player aged over 30 and spent substantial sums on these young talents, among others.
Former Red Bull Salzburg manager Peter Ziedler exclaimed that: “he already has great qualities, especially with his size (1.92m) thanks to which he won all his air duels without making mistakes. He is also very sober in his raise and he knows how to play short or long. But, his greatest quality for me is to be very cool. He is never nervous, always very focused and he transmits it to his teammates.”
It appears that Ćaleta-Car’s physical stature, quality on the ball and gravitas were the deciding factors. Marseille definitely have a leaning towards aggressive centre-backs, as Adil Rami is one of only two centre-backs in the above table to have a better aerial duel success %.
The main difference between Rami and Ćaleta-Car lies in the fact that while the former has a lower tackle success %, his tackles per foul rate is significantly more efficient. Either Marseille want to become slightly more aggressive as a team, or they believe that Ćaleta-Car’s propensity to get on the wrong side of opponents and foul them can be ironed out.
Marseille played a direct, attacking brand of football in Ligue 1 last season, averaging the joint most shots per game along with Paris Saint Germain. They were also second for shots on target per game and third for tackles per game, despite having more of the ball than their opponents.
However, on the other side of the coin, they only had the eighth best defensive record. Forget about the big guns; Montpellier, Nantes, Amiens and Rennes also conceded less goals over the season than Marseille.
In short, if everything goes as planned, Ćaleta-Car’s brave and aggressive nature should help with Marseille’s defensive transitions. Considering the fee, Marseille are likely to give him that opportunity.
In addition, his long passes should add an extra dimension to their attack.
For Croatia, it will be a tall order for Ćaleta-Car to become a regular in the short-term.
Now Dejan Lovren is back in the fray, his partnership with Domagoj Vida is stable. They are both aggressive centre-halves, akin to Ćaleta-Car.
However, if Ćaleta-Car impresses at Marseille, he should hopefully overtake veteran Vedran Ćorluka in the pecking order and be given more opportunities on the international stage.
Red Bull Salzburg’s prospects tend to experience a surge in recognition after leaving the club. Konrad Laimer only received his first call-up to the Austrian National Team after transferring to Leipzig last summer, while Naby Keita and Dayot Upamecano have become continental prospects following their moves.
At just 19, Upamecano now plays for France’s Under-21 side, with Keita now captaining the Guinea national team.
If recent trends continue, and Ćaleta-Car continues his current development, this transfer should have positive results for Marseille and Croatia.
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