Inter’s Adem Ljajic Continues to Mix the Good with the Bad under Mancini

Ljajic

For Inter’s recent 3-1 win over Palermo, Adem Ljajic, the club’s mercurial Serbian playmaker, found his way into the starting line-up. He didn’t take up his preferred attacking midfield position, starting out on the right-hand side instead of taking his place in the centre, but it didn’t really matter. He treated his nominal starting position as a mere point of reference and, much like an unruly kid who is told to stay in one place but does exactly the opposite, Ljajic spent most of his time cruising away from the right, normally into the centre but also over to the left.

Unlike an unruly kid, however, Ljajic had permission, from Inter manager Roberto Mancini, to play in this manner. “The coach asked me to start out wide on the right,” Ljajic said later, “but I had the freedom to move into the centre, not least to help out [Geoffrey] Kondogbia and [Gary] Medel.”

Given that Ljajic is most at home through the middle, Mancini’s decision to give him a great deal of positional freedom made sense. It allowed the now 24-year-old to drift in from the wing, where he could assist the likes of Kondogbia and Medel in getting Inter’s possession game going, and it allowed him to move through the parts of the pitch where he is most dangerous.

In order to make this work, Inter had to be organised. The likes of Rodrigo Palacio and Ivan Perisic, Ljajic’s teammates across the Nerazzurri’s attacking midfield line, needed to be aware of his movements and, at times, even needed to switch positions with him. But due to Ljajic’s almost insatiable desire to float away from the right-hand side, they were perfectly attuned to this. They traded places with the former Fiorentina man seamlessly, and this gave Ljajic all of the freedom he needed to have a significant impact upon the contest.

Put simply, he pulled the strings. Whenever Inter regained possession, Ljajic would look to get involved by darting in off the flank to make himself available for a pass. He did this particularly well on the counter-attack, often kickstarting quick transitions by receiving possession and carrying on the momentum of the move, either by playing a sharp pass or by bringing the ball forward himself. There was a moment, about five minutes before half-time, where Ljajic drifted infield to receive a short ball from Palacio. He then looked up and pierced the Palermo defence, courtesy of a slicing through ball, to find Perisic in behind along the left-hand side. The Croatian very nearly teed up Mauro Icardi with his cross, too, but even though the attack only resulted in a corner, it was nonetheless indicative of Ljajic’s ability to make things happen with his movement and skill.

Speaking of movement and skill, Ljajic would quickly combine these two things to open the scoring for Inter. On this occasion he had interchanged positions with Palacio, which meant that he was occupying the No. 10 role while the veteran Argentine had moved out to the right. So when Perisic picked up the ball along the left touchline, Ljajic found himself nearby. He dropped back a step, to get away from a Palermo marker, before controlling a pass from Perisic. With the outside of his right boot, Ljajic then dribbled the ball away from the oncoming defenders, clearing an opening to shoot in the process. Now on the edge of the area, he produced a low, hard drive. It skidded its way in off the turf, rifling by the outstretched arm of goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino to give Inter an 11th minute lead.

The extravagant strike punctuated an overwhelmingly excellent performance from Ljajic, one in which he contributed 2 key passes and more generally accelerated the flow of Inter’s attacks with his distribution. He also had a secondary assist in the lead-up to his team’s third goal, obliging Icardi’s run in behind before the Argentine’s cross enabled Perisic to score, but as is often the case with Ljajic, there was also the drawback attached to his outing.

That came in the 66th minute, when Mancini opted to replace his Serbian playmaker with Marcelo Brozovic. Yet even as those in attendance applauded Ljajic’s efforts, with one member of the crowd even holding up his No. 22 shirt in appreciation of his performance, the player himself was anything but pleased. In contrast, he was actively shaking his head as he made his way to the bench, ensuring his displeasure was evident to everyone around him. “Being subbed off didn’t make me very happy,” Ljajic said in the post-match, “because I still wanted to lend a hand to my teammates.”

Regardless of his intentions, this was yet another display of petulance from Ljajic. The list of such displays isn’t a short one, either. Reprimanded for spending too much time on his computer and eating too much chocolate? It’s on the list. Sarcastically applauding a former manager’s decision to substitute him and being physically attacked by said manager as a consequence? It’s there too. During Ljajic’s time at Fiorentina, Vincenzo Montella even described him as returning to pre-season “a little fatter” than he had been in the past, and these are only the highlights.

In the wake of Ljajic’s most recent piece of unprofessional behaviour, Mancini felt compelled to talk about both his good points and his bad points. “I really, really like Ljajic and he knows that, but at times he doesn’t train with the right attitude. His feet are excellent, but his brain doesn’t always work properly. He can sometimes rest on his laurels during a game or train badly all week,” the experienced manager argued. “A player with his quality should make the difference always, the way he did tonight. There are few players out there like him.”

The challenge for Ljajic, then, is to reduce the time he spends resting on his laurels in order to produce his best form more consistently. He has shown in the past that he has the traits to make a massive impact in Italian football, but he is yet to deploy those with enough regularity to suggest that he can be a top-line player. As it stands, he’s an inconsistent genius, a player who will either make use of his technique and inventive streak or one who won’t.

Fortunately for Ljajic, he is well positioned to make a statement at Inter. He is a creative hub within a squad that isn’t overly creative, a gifted technician in amongst a sea of physically imposing players. He can be the point of difference for Mancini, but in order to do that, he needs to turn up with the necessary intensity a little more often.

In a more general sense, Ljajic himself has spoken of Inter’s need for greater consistency as they approach the pointy end of the campaign. “The first months of the season proved that we can square up to anyone. We just have to keep up the form that we showed in the last few games,” he noted. “The match against Juventus [a 3-0 win in the Coppa Italia] was important. If we keep going like this, we can finish third.”

Inter can indeed finish third, and Ljajic has the quality to play a big part in their push to climb the standings. His strong showing against Palermo could be the catalyst for a more consistent Ljajic, and with 10 games remaining in Serie A, he has the opportunity to grow into that player.

At 24 years of age, now might be the time for him to finally to do it.