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Real Madrid’s hand may have been forced but sticking with Luka Jovic is the sensible approach

June 8, 2020

WERE it not for the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis forcing even the richest football clubs to rethink their short-term transfer plans, Luka Jovic would likely have been rebuilding his nascent career away from the Bernabeu next season.

Signed, with great fanfare, in a €60m deal from Eintracht Frankfurt last summer, Jovic has fallen short of expectations in his first season with Real Madrid, scoring just twice before the ongoing global pandemic forced football into suspended animation.

With the 22-year-old striker firmly out of favour in Madrid, rumours swirled midseason, linking him with a move to Arsenal, among other destinations. Reports in Spain now claim Jovic is likely to be retained, a consequence of tightened purse strings in the current climate, rather than by virtue of any faith the club holds in the Serbian.

Manager Zinedine Zidane insists that Jovic’s lack of playing time – 19 Madrid players better his paltry total of 382 La Liga minutes this season – is merely a consequence of the wealth of attacking options Los Blancos boast.

''He is a player that needs to play a lot to play well. There is no problem with him, and he must keep working hard,” Zidane assured in February. At the moment the difficulty lies with me as I cannot find a place for him, but he must be ready to play when he is needed.”

Jovic’s biggest obstacle at present is Zidane’s reliance on Karim Benzema. No Madrid player has racked up more La Liga minutes (2221) than the French forward this term, and he leads the team in both goals (14) and assists (6). With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Eden Hazard battling injury and Gareth Bale only occasionally key, Benzema is the trusted, proven, presence at the point of attack, relied upon to score, create and guide along Brazilian teenagers Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo.

But the fact a fully fit Jovic didn’t even make the matchday squad for El Clasico against Barcelona in February– with Mariano Diaz, an even more peripheral figure, chosen instead – suggests Zidane has little belief in the former Benfica youngster.

It had been rumoured that Madrid were among a handful of clubs contemplating a summer move to prise Erling Braut Haaland from Borussia Dortmund, despite the impressive Norwegian teenager having only signed for BVB in January. Now, though, it seems unlikely they will pursue the Bundesliga striker, with the financial fallout of the coronavirus shutdown likely to bite even the world’s richest club.

There are reasons for optimism in Jovic’s underlying performance statistics this season, though, even if, it must be pointed out, his lack of playing time makes for an unhelpfully small sample size.

Jovic emerged as one of the hottest goal-scoring talents in Europe with Eintracht last season, prolific domestically and in the Europa League to return a haul of 27 goals from 48 all-competitions games. In the Bundesliga, he averaged 0.68 goals per 90 minutes, while in La Liga this term his scoring rate has dropped to 0.48 per 90.

The rate and quality of chances he is generating, however, has remained almost identical, with 0.52 expected goals per 90 last season, and 0.53 with Madrid. Whereas in Germany, Jovic was outperforming his expected goals numbers at a rate likely unsustainable long-term, he is now underperforming.

Although such a downturn in finishing proficiency might cause alarm bells to ring, just as over-performance against xG tends to regress toward the average over time, so too does underperformance. The numbers tend to give credence to the old adage that it’s better to miss chances than to not be getting chances at all.

Zidane has already observed that Jovic is a player who performs best when in the rhythm of regular games. It is no leap, then, to believe the striker will rediscover his scoring touch if and when he is given the opportunity to play more regularly.

Football’s enforced shutdown, one hopes, will shock some sense into the game. The transfer market will retract and clubs at all levels must learn to operate in a more sustainable way.

This will mean, in the short term at least, fewer blockbuster transfer deals and more patience and faith afforded to developing players. Their hand may well have been forced, but sticking with Jovic is the sensible thing for Real Madrid to do.