The grit and the big-game goals of Mario Mandžukić, one of the football’s most underrated forwards

The grit and the big-game goals of Mario Mandžukić, one of the football’s most underrated forwards

No-nonsense players in modern-day football are a dying breed. Gone are the days when our heroes played through serious pain and bleeding bodies, appearing almost superhuman in the process. They were, for many, examples of what professional sportsmen should be. While times have changed – and its arguable whether it’s for the better or worse – the players of today belong to a different breed. 

In an era when they’re seen as and behave like celebrities, a select few are keeping that old flame burning. They’re not bothered by peoples’ perceptions of them and shun the fame. They’re footballers first, second and third.

Mario Mandžukić is one of those players, despite being a hero to far fewer than may of his illustrious peers. He’s rarely been a player who plays the game in a way that lifts you off your seat or leaves you dazzled by a piece of wizardry or craft. He won’t go past opposition players like they’re not there, nor will he showboat for personal gain. He isn’t outspoken or selfish. All he cares about is playing football and winning.

When Massimiliano Allegri hailed Mandžukić as an “extraordinary player” following the Bianconeri’s 1-0 win over Roma, it would’ve been nothing new for Juventus fans around the world. They’ve seen the best of the man; seen him battle for the side like the legends of yesteryear.

His use of “no good” in multiple interviews defines his personality more than anything. Nothing is good enough for the man from eastern Croatia. He will always keep going, pushing harder and giving everything he’s got. This insatiable thirst for achieving more has kept him at the top when many doubted him, taking him from one peak to another.

It is likely that the current period at Juventus is the best in Mandžukić’s career. Either way, it’s in Turin that his talent has, in many ways, finally received the credit it deserves. He’s won the Scudetto three times and is well on his way to yet another. 

At Juventus, coming up with important goals has become something of a trademark. Having scored against Lazio, Internazionale, AC Milan, Napoli and Roma, he’s acquired the moniker of being one of the most underrated big-game players in Europe right now. It all began when he pounced on the chance to put his footballing talents to use when his family migrated to Germany in 1991.

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After his hometown of Slavonski Brod, located near the Bosnian border, came under attack in the War of Independence, a German town called Ditzingen, located around 10km from Stuttgart, became Mandžukić’s new home. It was in this town that the youngster found solace away from a nation that was ravaged by war.

He began playing youth football for the local side Ditzingen, where his father played for the senior side as a defender. Having played there for five years, the Mandžukić family were told they couldn’t stay in Germany any longer. They were forced to head back to Croatia, with the war over and independence ratified.

Mandžukić, in a trait that would later define his career, fought through adversity and reinvented himself back home. For six years after his return he played for Marsonia, a club based in Slavonski Brod. After playing at a smaller club, Željezničar, for a season, he went back to his previous outfit, playing regularly for the first team and impressing along the way. He averaged more than a goal every two games – enough to capture the attention of NK Zagreb.

While NK Zagreb aren’t one of the traditional powerhouses in Croatia, it took just two seasons for Mandžukić to make an impact at the lesser-known capital side, despite not playing as a regular. Scoring 11 times in the league in the 2006/07 season was enough for him to become noticed by bigger clubs at home and abroad. Indeed, Slaven Bilić had seen enough to call him up to the senior Croatia side after Euro 2008.

As Eduardo da Silva departed Dinamo Zagreb for Arsenal in the summer of 2007, the nation’s biggest club chose Mandžukić as his replacement, adding him to a squad that included Luka Modrić for the modest fee of just €1.3m.

Two things stood out in Mandžukić’s first campaign at Dinamo: his goals and his passion. At 22, his first season at the Maksimir would see him offer a viable presence upfront, notching goals and helping bring the likes of Modrić into the game. While he’d suffer from a few disciplinary issues, his will to win and professional attitude immediately endeared him to the fans.

His approach to the game defined his struggles of the past. The Mandžukić family had to sacrifice so much for such little, like many from the region at the time. It was graft or fail in the eyes of the striker – and the choice was obvious.

Read  |  The rise of Edin Džeko from besieged Sarajevo to breaking records across Europe

He scored 12 times and assisted 11 in the his maiden season at Dinamo, and like any young player of the famous Zagreb outfit, interest in the striker was rising. On the international stage, he was also gaining prominence. Mandžukić scored his first goal in a 4-1 loss to England in September 2008, later becoming the national team’s first-choice number 9 and the domestic league’s top-scorer.

Werder Bremen were the first to come calling for him in the summer of 2009, reportedly offering Dinamo around €12m. Though the move never materialised, it seemed inevitable that the unsettled striker would soon be leaving his homeland. 

Soon after, in a Europa League game against Anderlecht, Dinamo suffered a 2-0 loss and Mandžukić was fined €100,000 for a perceived lack of effort on the pitch. That season Mandžukić scored 14 times in 24 games, registering two in the Champions League qualification games, making a move to Germany even more likely.

In 2010, Wolfsburg boss Steve McClaren, who had wanted Mandžukić from when he was in charge at Twente in the Netherlands, Madrid a move for the striker. With the former champions looking to return to the top of the Bundesliga and bolster the potency of their attack, the Croat was added for the bargain price of €7m. With Brazilian playmaker Diego also arriving, as well as Simon Kjær, a €60m spending spree looked set to run Bayern Munich close at home.

McCLaren, however, preferred using Mandžukić out wide than through the middle, with an eight-goal return a solid offering for a player who was yet to make his mark at the club.

Disappointingly, Wolfsburg finished 15th that season and McClaren was sacked in the winter. It was the exit of Edin Džeko to Manchester City in 2011, though, that sparked Mandžukić’s rise in the Bundesliga as a striker. Pierre Littbarski was brought in as interim manager and he preferred playing Mandžukić as the sole striker. So did Felix Magath, who returned as permanent boss towards the end of the campaign.

The next season represented his breakout in the Bundesliga. He was Wolfsburg’s top-scorer with a tally of 12, becoming a regular starter in the process. He also assisted 10 times, becoming a fan-favourite in the mould of Džeko and Grafite before him.

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His stock rose even more after Euro 2012, at least for those outside of Wolfsburg. He scored three times in the tournament, finishing joint top alongside others including Mario Gómez. It marked the rapid ascent of his journey towards the game’s very highest levels.

At the time, the lustre of Bayern Munich had been lost for some following the rise to prominence of Jürgen Klopp’s energetic Borussia Dortmund side, which had won the Bundesliga for the previous two campaigns. Die Roten had also failed to win the Champions League in the 2011/12 season, losing to Chelsea in the final on penalties. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t willing to tolerate a third year of disappointment.

By signing Mandžukić, Bayern looked for the assurance of more goals, wanting to take the load off Mario Gómez. The German had been Bayern’s top-scorer in 2011/12 but more was needed to dethrone Klopp’s Dortmund. It was felt that €13m represented a good deal for Bayern – the third time in his career that the Croat had moved for a modest fee. It highlighted how underrated he still was.

Mandžukić scored the highest number of goals for Bayern that season in the Bundesliga. While Dortmund were affected by the loss of Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United, Die Roten lost only one game, finishing the season on 91 points and winning it by 25. Dortmund’s shifting of priorities to the Champions League saw them reach the final of the competition. In front of them stood Bayern. 

Mandžukić scored in the showpiece event, with a late Arjen Robben strike giving them the glory. Bayern also won the DFB-Pokal that season, beating VfB Stuttgart in the final. While he had delivered the goods, Mandžukić‘s biggest encouragement was that he was now seen as indispensable by many within the walls of the Allianz. His passion, hard work and professionalism suited Bayern, something alluded to by many ex-legends at the German giants. 

Uncanny and unorthodox, Mandžukić was able to perform various roles up in attack, from a traditional winger to a classic target man. He could graft and dribble, jink and tackle, and was usually tricky to face. While the attention for being unorthodox often went to Thomas Müller, Mandžukić was just as versatile, intelligent and unique, even if his raw numbers didn’t always highlight it.

When Pep Guardiola was appointed Bayern manager in 2013, Mandžukić‘s days were inevitably numbered. Perhaps lacking the fluidity and style with which the Spaniard wanted to fill his team, he still managed 18 goals in 30 games, winning the respect of Guardiola, if not his desire to keep him. Indeed, in a candid interview with Sportske Novostki, Mandžukić said: “Let’s be honest, I can’t play to my strengths under Guardiola’s style no matter how hard I try.”

Read  |  Robert Lewandowski and the journey from club-less teen to striking royalty

Guardiola decided to drop him for the DFB-Pokal final, with the message clear: we don’t need you. Mandžukić did stay at home. At the time, the surrounding areas of his hometown, Slavonski Brod, were experiencing some of the worst floods in living memory. Out of the Bayern reckoning, the striker went home and took with him three vans loaded with supplies for the affected. He helped rescue animals and the people whose livelihoods had been destroyed.

With his days in Germany numbered, Atlético Madrid seemed the right choice for him. A team that relied on a packed midfield, deployed in a low-block. Los Rojiblancos defined Mandžukić as much as they did Diego Costa and Falcao before him. The Croat’s grit, intelligence and passion were perfectly suited to Diego Simeone’s machine.

He scored 20 times in 43 appearances in all competitions that season, with a masterclass in centre-forward play coming in a 4-0 victory over rivals Real Madrid. Despite that, he didn’t fit in as many predicted at the Vicente Calderón, with attitude problems in training and disagreements with Simeone leaving a future in Madrid unlikely. It was a shame and reflected poorly on both the club and player.

While Juventus had come close to winning the Champions League in 2015, they lacked a world-class number 9 – someone who could score with regularity. Álvaro Morata and Carlos Tevez had guided them to the final against Barcelona, but there wasn’t a goalscorer they could look to in their time of need. For €19m, Mandžukić was brought in to be that man.

As things stand, Mandžukić may not have won the Champions League with the Bianconeri, but his time in Turin has seen the Croat fulfil his potential, playing with regularity in Allegri’s team and offering a substance-over-style method that complements Juve’s flair in attack. His adaptability came to the fore when the club signed Gonzalo Higuaín for a club-record fee in 2016. The Argentine played up front as the sole striker, with Mandžukić acting as the perfect foil off the left, protecting his full-back and making some of football’s most intelligent runs from out wide to score goals of supreme importance.

At the 2018 World Cup for Croatia, Mandžukić’s work-rate, ability to retain the ball, and pressing was as important as Luka Modrić’s contributions in midfield. He came up with goals in the round of 16, the winner in extra-time against England, and one in the final against France, marking his zenith in the game. Finally he received the worldwide plaudits his career deserved for so long. With almost a century of caps under his belt for Croatia and a position of power at Juventus, Mario Mandžukić, at 32, still has so much to offer in football. Maybe he’ll finally do so with the credit he was rarely afforded.

By Kaustabh Pandey @Kaus_Pandey17

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