Croatia’s Next Flying Wingback
With 21 league titles since the league’s induction, Dinamo Zagreb has undoubtedly been Croatia’s best team. In the European stages, although less dominant compared to teams from other leagues, they have proved to be dark horses in multiple occasions, causing upsets in numerous occasions. Most recently, they have knocked Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham out of the Europa League.
Unfortunately, TV revenues of the Croatian league cannot compete with top European Leagues like the Premier League. This meant that income was insignificant, and thus unable to purchase top players from different leagues to bolster their squads. Instead, the income generated would normally be used to fund their academies, with more focus on the next generation of players coming through. The best of them, would be sold to sustain the club’s finances. Clearly, the investment on youth academies and facilities across the country has come to fruition when Croatia advanced to the Finals of the World Cup in 2018.
For Dinamo Zagreb, the model has helped kickstarted the careers of Croatia captain and Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric as well as fellow Champions League winners Mateo Kovačić and Dejan Lovren, to name a few. In 2015, a new name from the famous academy started his journey as a 16-year-old left-back in a win against NK Zagreb. That player has since been a peripheral figure for the club in their title win in the 2017–18 season before earning a €6.00m move to VfB Stuttgart. Though he endured a few rough seasons at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, (which included the club’s first relegation to the German second tier their history) the player has finally kickstarted his career in Germany and is currently the club’s leading assister with 8 in the league so far. With comparisons made to the legendary David Beckham due to his excellent crosses and technique, that player is 23-year-old Borna Sosa.
The dashboard below shows why Sosa is highly regarded as one of Bundesliga’s most exciting left wingbacks and his importance to Stuttgart when compared to other defenders in the league. This analysis will cover the Croatian’s performance with Die Schwaben this season. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to FBref via StatsBomb.
Borna ‘Beckham’ Sosa
“Borna Sosa reminds me of David Beckham”
— Sven Mislintat
VfB Stuttgart primarily utilize a 343 system with Borna Sosa and Silas Wamangituka as the wingbacks for the team. Wamangituka operates on the right and his direct running has been a threat to opposition backlines, pushing the defence backwards and finding space in the box to conjure up a shot. On the other side sits Borna Sosa, who operates similarly to a traditional winger where his primary tasks are to stay wide and supply balls into the box for their attackers to pounce. With Silas in the box, it gives Sosa more men to aim for when delivering his arsenal of crosses from the left. This is evident in the heatmaps of both wingbacks this season, where Silas can be seen more active in the box.
This season, Borna Sosa has registered 6.28 crosses per90, which also ranks him second in the league, only behind Filip Kostic with 7.69 crosses per90. His high volume of crosses results in dangerous opportunities with 1.22 of the crosses into the penalty area per90, again second only to the ever-consistent Filip Kostic with 1.63 crosses into the penalty area per90. Whenever the Croatian receives the ball on the left, his first instinct is to cross it to the forwards in the box. This may come in a variety of forms as he is capable of bending it between the centre backs or loop one over. It is also worth mentioning that their top goal-scorer Sasa Kalajdzic, is the tallest player in the league standing at 6’7ft, this makes Sosa’s job incredibly easier as he has the perfect target to aim for. The pair have a great understanding, and the tall Austrian has the Croatian to thank for 4 of the goals he scored this season.
In the 5–1 win against Schalke 04, Sosa receives the ball at the edge of the penalty box following a corner, he immediately steadies himself and delivers a perfectly weighted ball for Kalajdzic to guide the ball towards goal.
Another instance that highlights his repertoire of crosses and chemistry with Kalajdzic is at the dying embers against Monchengladbach. Upon receiving the ball, Sosa immediately floats the ball high up in the air with the perfect amount of weight on it so that it lands perfectly for the tall striker, who was subsequently brought down and won the team a last-minute penalty.
Borna Sosa has largely been Stuttgart’s creative outlet this season and the stats proves it. Currently, he has registered the most key passes (42) and the most passes into the penalty area (37) for the team. In fact, when compared to defenders who has played at least 10 games this season, only 4 players better him in the metric per90, meaning that he is amongst the league’s best creative passers this season.
When it comes to chance creations, the wingback has certainly been one of the best in this regard. His passing coupled alongside fantastic technique on the ball has registered 0.5 goal-creating chances per90 and 3.2 shot-creating chances per90. To put it in context, his numbers are far superior compared to Bayern’s roadrunner Alphonso Davies with 0.29 goal-creating chances per90 and 2.5 shot-creating chances per90. This goes to highlight his immense technical abilities on the ball and the quality he produces with his deliveries and passes.
In this example, when Sosa received the ball just at the final third of the pitch, nobody is seen in the box and so he delays for a second and anticipated the run from Gonzalez. At the same time, it is apparent that the entire backline is pushed backwards by Kalajdzic, knowing the danger he brings aerially. This drags the centre back out wider than he should, to gain the numbers advantage over the striker, but in doing so, leaving a gap for Gonzalez to run onto. The ball was delivered to perfection and connected with Gonzalez for the goal. This not only highlights the abilities of Sosa but a brilliant tactical approach by Pellegrino Matarazzo.
Lapse in Concentration
The quality he brings when he is on the ball is brilliant and exciting to watch, even being Stuttgart’s main outlet from ball progression. The Croatian is amongst the league’s best when it comes to carrying the ball to advanced positions. Sosa has 2.06 carries into the final third from 7.03 progressive carries per90 this season. His statistics beast the likes of teammate Silas Wamangituka, who is known for his direct style of play on the right channel.
However, as much of an asset Sosa is at the attacking phases of play for Stuttgart, his defending leaves a lot to be desired. For a start, Stuttgart are not a team who presses opponents aggressively, but rather close passing lanes and intercept balls as a mean to win the ball back. In fact, Stuttgart registers the least number of presses in the league with 3386. For that, most of their defensive approach relies on high concentration when they do not have the ball. Borna Sosa’s tackles and interceptions per90 are indicative of the style of play Stuttgart utilizes when out of possession, with 1.11 interceptions per90 and 1.06 tackles per90, the Croatian is clearly a more reactive and passive defender. Again, high concentration when out of possession is required to help maintain the shape and rigidity of the team, but there are couple of instances where Sosa has shown signs of weakness in this regard.
In the game against Monchengladbach, he failed to react to a player who has managed to run on the inside of him. At that moment, the best thing to do is to do nothing because the position clearly doesn’t favor the left footed Sosa to put in a tackle. But that moment of panic made the Croatian commit to a tackle, which led to a penalty. This goes to show his poor concertation skills as he was focusing on the ball but not his marker, as well as his poor judgements in defending situations.
Croatia vs Scotland
So how does Sosa compare amongst the best left backs in the world? I have decided to compare both Sosa with Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson, to see how he fares against a Champions League and Premier League winning left back. The dashboard below will highlight the defensive attributes in successful tackles in 1v1 situations and successful pressures, Creative threat in crosses into penalty area and key passes, as well as ball carrying attributes in carries into penalty area and successful dribbles.
In terms of defensive contributions, Robertson is clearly superior due to the proactive gegenpressing approach adopted by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. That said, Sosa is clearly holding his own in this regard considering the defensive approach of his team. Robertson only has 0.09 tackles more as well as 0.24 more successful pressures per90, bettering the Croatian, but not by a lot.
When it comes to the attacking contributions, many would expect the high-flying Scotsman dominating Sosa in terms of crosses into penalty area and key passes, considering the attacking role the fullbacks perform at Anfield. However, the dashboard shows a different outcome where Sosa has dominated in both aspects of the game. Once again highlighting his importance to Stuttgart in their first season back in the Bundesliga as well as the quality he possesses with his distributions.
Lastly, the same can be said when comparing the pairs’ ball carrying attribute, The Liverpool man is ideally the more dynamic and direct of the two, as he is constantly looking to drive the ball forwards and supply crosses to Salah and co. But the results show a different outcome again with the Croatian bettering the Scotsman. Although Sosa prefers to whip a delivery upon receiving the ball, the player is also capable in taking players on and progressing the ball into dangerous positions. This once again highlights the importance Sosa brings to Stuttgart as their main creative hub from the flanks.
Croatia’s Next Generation
Sosa is finally relishing the potential people see in him at the age of 16, he has gone though many rough moments in his career and it looks set to finally take off now. With 8 assists already in his name this season, the Croatian is one of the most exciting wingbacks in world football today. His weaknesses, however, must be addressed for it may cause his team goals. With the upcoming Euros arriving in the summer, Borna Sosa must be included in the squad as his dynamins and Beckham esque deliveries can help Croatia in tricky moments.
With reports linking him to Bayern Munich, he has since openly admitted his admiration for the Bavarians. That said, Sosa must remain focused and consistent in his performances and perhaps he is a season or two away from earning a big money move to one of Europe’s powerhouses.