If there’s been a single positive out of this season, it’s the man formerly known as the Very Large Teen. In some ways, his trajectory has been the exact opposite of Fiorentina’s: as the club flounders and sinks deeper into malaise, he’s has only improved. He’s fresh off his second international goal and becoming a hotter and hotter property, just as we’ve suspected he would all along.
The rest of the world is starting to figure it out now. Rumors of interest from AC Milan, AS Roma, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid make sense, as do the comparisons to Erling Haaland. Vlahović has elbowed his way into the Serbia setup and suddenly looks like one of the Eagles’ key performers in World Cup Qualifier, pushing Luka Jović out of his way in the process. Everyone agrees that he’s got as much potential as any striker in the world.
That’s missing the point, though. When we talk about talented young players, and strikers in particular, there’s a temptation to fixate on what they could grow into. We’re obsessed with the idea of a ceiling, a maximum ability. Part of this is probably due to the proliferation of FIFA, PES, and FM: everyone’s looking for the next big thing. Part of it is because we’re watching Lionel Messi and C*******o R*****o reach scoring numbers that simply don’t seem possible outside of those video games.
The problem, though, is that while we’re busily trying to figure out whether some teenager can become the next Robert Lewandowski, those players are still out there playing. And in Vlahović’s case, we need to stop thinking about what he could do in the future and look at what he’s doing now, because he’s already one of Serie A’s best forwards by any measure.
Let’s talk about goals. Vlahović has got 12 of them this year. That’s good for 10th-most in the league. If you take out penalties, he’s got 9 goals, which is good for 12th-most, although you also have to give him credit for winning 2 of the penalties he’s converted. Going back to his total of 12 scored, he’s netted 34.2% of Fiorentina’s 35 goals this year. Only C*******o R*****o, João Pedro, and Simy have contributed a greater percentage of their team’s goals this year.
Next, we’ll take a look at his xG. Including penalties, his xG this year is 12.6, which is good for 5th in Serie A, trailing only C*******o R*****o, Romelu Lukaku, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Ciro Immobile (who are probably the 4 best strikers in Italy). If you look at xG without including penalties, Edin Džeko edges ahead of him as well. Either way, that is an elite group of strikers who’ve proven themselves to be consistent scorers at domestic and International level.
Setting aside the first 10 games, when he notched single goal from 3.9 xG, he’s scored 11 goals from an xG of 8.7. That means he’s outperforming his xG by by 26.4% over the past 17 games. Francesco Caputo has managed to exactly equal that tally, while only M’bala Nzola (28.6%), Domenico Berardi (50.7%) and utter freakshow Luis Muriel (61.6%) have surpassed it. That means that Vlahović is finishing his chances a better clip than anyone else in the top 10 in Serie A’s scoring charts except for Muriel, who is, again, experiencing one of the most statistically anomalous seasons ever. Keep in mind that 2-month malaise that Vlahović experienced to start the season, too, for the rest of this article, as it makes his stats even more impressive, although I didn’t work the splits for them in the interest of keeping this piece at a reasonable length.
Every other forward mentioned here is obviously very talented. However, they all have something Vlahović doesn’t: another goal threat up front. The other 13 forwards in Serie A who’ve hit double digits have a sidekick up front who’s buried, on average, 9.8 goals of their own this year. After Vlahović, Fiorentina’s highest-scoring forward is Franck Ribery, who’s scored twice.
Let’s turn back to the 14 forwards in double figures this year. I’m interested in finding a statistic similar to usage rate in basketball: a measurement of how many of a team’s opportunities a player uses when he’s on the field. I decided that a good and fairly simple way to investigate this was to compare the player’s xG/90 minutes to the team’s xG/90.
As you’ll notice, the percentages won’t always add up because these are per 90 minutes; Muriel, therefore, as a super-sub, contributes nearly a three quarters of Atalanta’s goals, but only when he’s on the pitch. Muriel has played just 981 minutes this year, and Ibrahimović 1189; Vlahović, whose 2045 minutes put him at the median point in the remaining 11 players, has spent about twice as long on the pitch as either of those two.
What this says, then, is that, when Vlahović is on the field, nearly half of Fiorentina’s scoring opportunities fall to him. Since he’s constantly on the field, that means that the entire attack is focused on him to an extent unmatched by anyone except for Simy (criminally underrated in his own right) and C*******o R*****o; the latter, for all his heroics in the scoring charts, has been accused of scuppering Juventus’ attack by forcing it to focus solely on him to the exclusion of everyone else.
Vlahović is scoring a lot of goals. He’s not only scoring them, he’s converting them at an impressively high rate. Not only is he converting them at an impressively high rate, he’s doing it without support. Not only is he doing it without support, he’s doing it while shouldering as large a responsibility for scoring as just about anyone in Serie A. It’s definitely notable that, at just 21 years old, he’s the youngest player on this list; Lautaro Martínez at 23 is next, and then Berardi at 26. Even if this is it, his ceiling, the absolute best he can play, it’s already comparable to the best strikers in Italy.
Dušan Vlahović is not the Next Big Thing. Dušan Vlahović is a Current Big Thing.