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Our big Balkan boy is (maybe) coming home

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Nastasić was such a good player for the Viola that it makes sense to bring him back.

FC Schalke 04 - Training Camp Second Bundesliga Photo by Roland Krivec/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

19 November 2011. Fiorentina are flailing as badly as we’d seen since the Della Valle brothers bought the club, sitting in 15th place on matchday 12 and averaging a point per game. Siniša Mihajlović had been sacked 4 days earlier, leaving Delio Rossi in charge. With Per Krøldrup and Cesare Natale hurt, the mister turns to an 18-year-old who’s never started in Serie A to hold Zlatan Ibrahimović and Robinho in check.

No, this isn’t the Michele Camporese game. This is the Matija Nastasić game. The Partizan Belgrade graduate had arrived in Tuscany that summer for €4 million, but the presence of Krøldrup, Natale, Camporese, Alessandro Gamberini, and Felipe meant that Nastasić was supposed to play with the Primavera or maybe take a year on loan. Mihajlović, though, saw something he liked, and after the injuries hit, young Matija took the pitch against capolista club.

AC Milan’s Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahi
Giving Zlatan the business was a weirdly common thing for teenage Fiorentina defenders at one point.
Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

And he never looked back, did he? He helped the Viola keep a clean sheet en route to the 6th-best defensive record in the league despite the team finishing in 13th. He was smart, athletic, and tough-minded, never backing down from any of his older, more accomplished opponents. We all sagely nodded to each other that yeah, that Pantaleo Corvino sure knows how to spot young talent in the Balkans. Images of him and Camporese starting in the heart of defense for the next decade danced in our heads.

It didn’t last, because it never lasts in Florence. Manchester City offered €15 million plus Stefan Savić on the final day of the transfer window the following summer, and away went Nastasić. He was up and down at City for the next 3 seasons, but they eventually sold him to Schalke in 2015 for €9.5 million. Nastasić has manned the heart of the Königsblau defense ever since.

With a contract running out next year, though, and Schalke having collapsed into relegation, it’s no surprise that the 28-cap Serbia international wants out. According to Gianluca di Marzio, Fiorentina have very nearly closed a deal for him. It should work out to something like €2.5 million in transfer fees, although we haven’t heard any reports on the terms of his contract yet.

Nastasić isn’t the shiny young thing he was a decade ago, both because that’s how time works and because he’s dealt with a litany of injuries to his lower body, including an Achilles tendon tear back in 2016 that slowed him down a bit. He’s still only 28, which shouldn’t be possible, but despite the health concerns he should have plenty to offer the club if he ends up returning.

Stylistically, he’s a good fit for Vincenzo Italiano. Nastasić led Schalke in long passes completed per 90 last year, indicating that he’s quite comfortable on the ball. Defensively, he’s more of a penalty box presence at this point, as he rarely found himself in space against dribblers and did pretty badly when he was. He’s still good in the air and solid at hoovering up loose balls behind the defense; in short, think of him as a less-mobile Germán Pezzella who’s better in possession.

With more and more whispers that Nikola Milenković may well sign a contract extension after all, Nastasić would likely be a backup rather than a starter, even if Pezze moves on; Lucas Martínez Quarta and Igor are probably better options at this point, although this deal could mean that Italiano sees Igor as a fullback more than a centerback. Regardless, it’s never a bad thing to add a talented, seasoned defender to the mix, especially one who seems to fit in with the team’s style and who has history at the club. Let’s all hope this one comes to pass, because it’d be nice to enjoy Matija again.