Sergej Milinkovic-Savic: The Sergeant Who Dominates All Who Stand Before Him

Max Cooper
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is one of the very best box-to-box midfielders.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is one of the very best box-to-box midfielders. / VINCENZO PINTO/Getty Images

We are all taught from an early age, 'don't judge a book by its cover'. And yet, even after having this notion drilled into our subconscious for years on end, we continue to cast snap judgements over everything that crosses our path.

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And one glance at the brutish, heavily strapped bindings of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic - bursting at the seams to accommodate his intimidating and powerful frame - and you'd be forgiven for thinking he was a towering, no-nonsense centre-half of yesteryear.

Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile are Lazio's two standout performers.
Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile are Lazio's two standout performers. / Marco Rosi/Getty Images

You may be led into believing that his six foot three inch, wide frame hinders the Lazio man, painting him as some tottering, lumbering oaf who can't help but stumble and trip over his gigantic feet. But you'd be wrong. Those aspersions would be eradicated just as rapidly, after catching a glimpse of the big Serb in action.

Milinkovic-Savic is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world. And at the tender age of 25, he's not even reached the peak of his powers. A scary thought. But not as frightening as the potential he demonstrated during his breakout campaign back in 2017/18, which made the whole world stand up and take notice.

The Serbian youngster had joined Le Aquile from Belgian outfit Genk in 2015, and although he featured regularly over the next two seasons, his presence flew under the radar of the European stage.

But it was in 2017 that the 22-year-old announced his arrival among football's royalty, contributing 12 goals and four assists from his advanced midfield role. The Lazio man spent the majority of that campaign as a number 10, playing in behind striker Ciro Immobile, and it was a system that suited the Sergeant down to the ground.

Milinkovic-Savic grabbed the majority of his strikes by putting his strapping frame to good use, bullying defenders to headers in the penalty area or arriving on the edge of the box just in time to clip, power, or slot home with his wonderful array of finishing skills.

And while that particular campaign remains his best return to date in terms of numbers posted, he has continued to grow into an even further accomplished star. However, he did endure a difficult 12 months after reaching the heights of 2017/18, turning in some subdued performances at the 2018 World Cup, and suffering a below-expectations 2018/19 season with Lazio.

Milinkovic-Savic's dip in form did coincide with strong rumours linking him with a move to a number of Premier League giants, as well as La Liga powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid, but he was priced out of a departure by the Eagles' president.

And whether the Serbia international was satisfied with remaining in Rome for another year or not, it certainly did him the world of good. His relatively average 2018/19 campaign saw him begin to transition into a deeper role than the number 10 in which he had thrived the previous season, as he learned to dictate the tempo of the game and make the most of his exquisite passing capabilities.

Subsequently, his latest string of performances over the course of the 2019/20 campaign have drawn comparisons with one of the greatest midfielders of his generation, Kevin De Bruyne. And those similarities have arisen from the pockets of space that the Serb likes to occupy when in possession.

De Bruyne has shone this season for Manchester City, bagging a shed load of goals and assists from a curious inside-right midfield position that is rarely seen in the modern game. This unattended area of space allows the Belgian to control the game away from the centre of the pitch, switch play when he becomes overloaded with opponents, or whip dangerous crosses into the box from the right-hand side.

And unerringly, Milinkovic-Savic performs the exact same role for Lazio with equal success. The only difference is that the Biancocelesti star also provides more defensive cover for his backline, and occasionally abandons his position to chuck his strapping limbs into the mix, dispatching crosses in emphatic fashion.

Despite his considerable size, however, the midfielder is astonishingly gifted with the ball at his feet. Given that his unique talents are well-documented around the world, opponents unsurprisingly double - or sometimes treble up - on the star, hoping to starve him of service and reduce his impact on proceedings.

But these attempts are utterly futile. In the blink of an eye, Milinkovic-Savic can make the ball disappear like a magician, hypnotising his markers with lightning footwork before popping it off to a teammate to kickstart an attack. And more often than not, he'll manage to make a forward pass, even if he finds himself facing his own goal. Athletic stuff for a big man.

Milinkovic-Savic also provides an impenetrable shield ahead of his grateful defence, and he has perfected his judgement and timing of a tackle over the last three seasons, now allowing him to dispossess his opponents with precision and incision.

And my word, he's a strong boy. There's a reason they call him the Sergeant, after all.

Milinkovic-Savic's ability to guard his backline and play pinpoint forward balls allows Lazio to perform a relentless counter-attacking game, and the midfielder, coupled with fellow lock-pick Luis Alberto, has punished countless opponents with his defence-splitting passes through to the clinical Immobile.

Le Aquile's ease of going from back to front in a matter of seconds has propelled them into the midst of a fierce title race, and that all comes down to their maestro Milinkovic-Savic. He has simply got every trait needed to be a world-class midfielder in his locker.

Heading, tackling, short and long-range passing, deadly finishing from all angles, quick feet and a gliding dribbler of the ball, there is nothing that this man can't do.

Not to mention his willingness to sacrifice his own personal glory, but instead improve the game of those around him, which makes him an irreplaceable asset to Simone Inzaghi. The Serb's love for the big occasion - demonstrated by crucial goals in this season's victories over title rivals Inter and Juventus - will only increase his reputation as a superstar.

Milinkovic-Savic has scored big goals in crucial games.
Milinkovic-Savic has scored big goals in crucial games. / Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

It has been a privilege to watch Milinkovic-Savic grow into one of the greatest box-to-box midfielders in the world, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. The Sergeant is ready to take Europe by force.