In the mould of Matic – Magic Marko Vejinovic can go a long way

The end of July 2014 saw Chelsea take on Vitesse Arnhem in a pre-season friendly and it saw a midfield battle between two rather big, imposing defensive midfielders, both of Serbian origins, both, previously attacking midfielders and both, once of the name Matic.

Nemanja Matic is a very well-recognised player now; following a rather average spell on loan at Vitesse playing in a more attacking role. The Serb burst on to the scene at Benfica, having been converted into a defensive midfielder by coach Jorge Jesus. His performances even got him a one-way trip back to West London and he has since not looked back at all, becoming one of the very best in his position in the world.

The lesser-known Matic in the Gelredome on July 30, actually does not go by that name now, but he did until he was 18. At the start of the 2008-09 season, just as he looked to make his first team at AZ debut under Louis van Gaal, Marko Matic exchanged his mother’s surname for his father’s and became Marko Vejinovic. At the time, Vejinovic was a pure attacking midfielder, having been honed at Ajax’s academy for some time.

However, his age did not prevent him from warring against his Champions League winning trainer, paying little mind to reputation. While he was promoted to the first team at AZ in their title-winning 2008-09 season, van Gaal did not give him an awful lot of playing time and Vejinovic felt like he was being overlooked even for friendly matches.Understandably unimpressed, he went right up to the ‘Iron Tulip’ and asked for an explanation – something not many people can muster the courage to do, let alone a boy who has just come fresh out of the youth and reserve levels.

Van Gaal was amused by this and told him that he had confidence in the Amsterdam-born midfielder, but Vejinovic later revealed that he did not believe it.

As fate would have it, AZ’s next manager was Van Gaal’s sweetheart, Ronald Koeman. The current Saints boss offered the midfielder a contract extension for 4 years but could not give assurances over playing time and that was it for Vejinovic in Alkmaar.

With the options of Heracles, Parma and Real Madrid B for his next move, Marko chose the less-glamorous town in the east of the Netherlands, Almelo, over the sunshine of Italy and Spain; playing time was his biggest priority.

At Heracles, under the log-cabin-loving Gertjan Verbeek, Vejinovic found a place for himself. It was not an immediate transition into the first team but the straightforwardness of Verbeek made Marko feel better about waiting for his chance. Verbeek was a tough cookie in terms of his expectations of his players, but Vejinovic felt he was fair in that way to all players.

Just a year after, Verbeek went the opposite way of Vejinovic; moving from Heracles to AZ (the club’s fouth coach after van Gaal’s departure in the summer of 2009). However, that allowed Heracles to acquire the services of talented coach Peter Bosz.

Bosz – a former midfielder himself – made full use of Vejinovic as a No. 10 but also made sure other parts of his play would improve, as well as adding to the versatility in his arsenal; Vejinovic was at times used as a central midfielder and even a centre forward for Heracles.

Peter Bosz is perhaps the Dutch answer to Andre Villas-Boas in terms of the expansive, attack-at-all-costs, style of game. In this particular system, Vejinovic as No. 10 was afforded a lot of freedom and could drift onto the flanks as well as push forward behind the striker.

In 2013, when Vitesse and Merab Jordania came riding for Peter Bosz, Vejinovic followed him on a free transfer, having completed his contract at Heracles and wanting to challenge for European football.

Initially, the midfielder found chances hard to come by, with club legend Theo Janssen returning from a brief stint at Ajax and Bosz preferring Davy Propper or Valeri Qazaishvili in the attacking midfield role. But when Janssen tore his knee ligaments and had to retire from football, Bosz had two options: play Kelvin Leerdam in his more natural midfield position or mould Vejinovic from a No. 10 into a No. 6, sitting behind Propper and Christian Atsu. The latter is what Bosz chose to do, like Jorge Jesus did with Matic of the Nemanja kind.

Understandably, it took Vejinovic a few appearances to establish himself in the midfield and get used to his new position, but it did not take a great deal of time. Soon enough, the midfield triumvirate of Propper-Vejinovic-Atsu became the spine of Vitesse in 2013-14.

‘Magic Marko’ is not a midfield bully a la van Bommel or de Jong. He does not always try to outmuscle his opponent but rather, out-think them. Vejinovic tries to be at the right place, at the right time and then win the ball in crucial midfield areas. However, this is not to criticise his strength – he has won a very healthy 74% of his aerial duels this season.

Perhaps like Nemanja Matic, Vejinovic’s origins as an attacking midfielder also allows him to add much more than being just a No.6 who sweeps up and recycles possession. Vejinovic is a defensive midfielder who is perfect for a Peter Bosz team in that whenever he recovers the ball, he immediately moves it forward, either by dribbling towards goal or with a pass forward to a teammate. Whenever he has possession of the ball, Vitesse look like a team with intent and the pace of their play starts to build momentum.

He was limited to a deeper role last season because he was primarily playing a single pivot behind Atsu and Propper, while this term, he has Leerdam for company. That has also allowed Vejinovic to be quite the all-round force for Vitesse this season; the defensive midfielder is Vitesse’s top scorer in the Eredivisie with eight goals (a hat trick against ADO Den Haag and a direct goal from a corner vs FC Twente included), five assists and 30 chances created so far this season.

Vejinovic has an amazing understanding of his teammates’ positioning in relation to his own and can link play in the attacking third effectively. Moreover, he also possesses the silky touches and close control which go a long way in helping a player be decisive in the final third, as shown in the 2nd Vitesse goal in the KNVB Beker match against Dordrecht. The Vitesse No. 7 brings the ball up and exchanges passes coolly with Oliynyk just outside the box, before laying off for the Ukrainian to tap in. 

Vejinovic has been an ever-present in Vitesse’s starting XI this season in the league, missing only 16 minutes of action so far and though the Arnhem side are only in 10th place, his presence will be crucial in Vitesse’s bid for European football next season. Rumours have been going around of interest in him from Hertha BSC of Germany but we do wonder why there have not been more clubs sniffing around the player who has been a standout in a poor season for Vitesse. Peter Bosz rates him extremely highly and has similarly lofty expectations for him – publicly voicing his disappointment in Vejinovic after certain games and remarking that he should be more consistent in influencing the game since he is a player who could have a great future and should not let himself off lightly. It is imperative for Vitesse to at least hold on to him till the summer (which seems likely) and then see where what the tide brings.

The Amsterdam-born midfielder has represented The Netherlands up to the U21 level but has yet to be called up by the Oranje senior squad. At the rate he’s performing and with his eligibility for Serbia, Hiddink may not delay Vejinovic’s first call-up much further. When his chance on the big stage does come, I doubt Vejinovic will be fazed too much; this is after all, the lad who demanded an explanation from Louis van Gaal as an 18-year-old.

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