Sitting second-bottom in the Premier League table with just five wins to their name and one of the worst defensive records in the league, Crystal Palace are in the midst of a gruelling relegation battle. The January transfer window represented the last opportunity for Sam Allardyce to strengthen his squad for the crucial fixtures ahead of his team, and one of the captures he made was that of Serbian central midfielder Luka Milivojević.
Joining for an undisclosed fee on a three-and-a-half year deal, Milivojević is a relative unknown to English football followers after a career spent primarily in Eastern Europe. Having come through the academy of his local club, FK Radnički 1923, the 25-year-old moved to Rad and then Red Star Belgrade as he ascended the domestic football hierarchy in his home country.
Then, in 2013, he moved abroad for the first time, signing for Belgian side Anderlecht. One year later he left for perennial Greek champions Olympiakos, where he matured as a player and re-established himself in the Serbian national team.
With 19 caps to his name, experience of competing in the Champions League and playing in three different countries, Milivojević is a well-travelled operator. Nonetheless, he stated his satisfaction at joining Crystal Palace upon his arrival last month, saying: “I'm very excited to come to Crystal Palace and … to play in the Premier League, which is one of the best leagues in the world. I will try to … give my best for the team and to adapt to the league and my new team as fast as possible.”
Allardyce was in need of an additional option for his midfield simply due to the numbers and form of those already available to him. Mathieu Flamini has failed to establish himself since joining at the start of the season, while fellow Frenchman Yohan Cabaye has endured an underwhelming campaign thus far. Welsh international Joe Ledley has also struggled for form, while Jason Puncheon is better suited to a higher position, leaving Scotsman James McArthur as the sole consistent provider of bite in the centre.
But Milivojević wasn’t brought in simply to add quantity, but quality in an area of weakness for Crystal Palace. When asked to describe his latest recruit, Allardyce told the club’s official website: “I am delighted to bring Luka to the club. He has experience in UEFA Champions League and international football and will add a new dimension to our midfield. He is a talented two footed player with intelligent passing ability as well as being very strong defensively, in and out of possession.”
And the player himself was keen to clarify exactly what he intends to bring to the London club.
“I’m a defensive midfielder, I’m the one who tries to control the game and bring balance to the team,” he said.
“I will try to do my best and bring my qualities as soon as possible.”
In his final six months with Olympiakos, Milivojević scored an impressive six goals in 17 league outings, although Crystal Palace fans should not hope for a similar bout of scoring form from their new signing.
“Six goals in 17 games … is a little bit strange for me,” the Serbian admitted.
Milivojević made his debut for the club in their 1-0 away defeat to Stoke on 11 February and was quick to demonstrate some of the traits he will bring to improve Crystal Palace’s midfield. The most noticeable one was that he is extremely comfortable receiving the ball under pressure, often acting as the first pass out for the centre-backs. At one point, his composure and technique was highlighted as he cheekily dinked the ball over an incoming sliding challenge before moving forward with the ball at his feet.
The deep-lying midfielder is also a simplistic but effective distributor of the ball, rarely going for the ‘Hollywood’ option and instead searching constantly for the most appropriate pass in the circumstances. In addition, against Stoke he regularly, and successfully, tried to break the opposition’s lines with penetrative passes through pressure, as opposed to going backwards or sideways. An example of this is depicted below where, with four Stoke players in his vicinity, Milivojević finds a team-mate behind all of them.
His qualities don’t stop at being on the ball. Without possession, the 25-year-old is an intelligent player who looks to support team-mates in build-up by finding space to offer a viable passing lane. This is seen in the below image, where his movement on the blind side of Joe Allen gives Crystal Palace centre-back James Tomkins a short pass out from the back around Allen.
Milivojević is also sound defensively, as Allardyce discussed immediately after signing the player. As well as being an astute man marker when necessary, he is capable of bringing good coverage in front of the defensive line by taking up strong positions. His awareness of which gaps to plug were seen regularly throughout the defeat to Stoke, with one depicted below.
In this example, Milivojević moves to block any attempted pass or cross into the centre by Stoke right-back Phil Bardsley. And, when the pass inevitably comes, he is in position to intercept and instigate a counter-attack.
The only issue for Crystal Palace’s new midfield addition may be the style of the team both in recent seasons and under Allardyce. Previously, they were very much focused on attacking down the flanks through the use of pacey, skilful wingers such as Puncheon, Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolasie and now Andros Townsend. This, to an extent, remains today, though Allardyce has also brought added emphasis on the use of centre forward Christian Benteke as a target man, with the Belgian acting as a focal point for direct balls.
In each of these styles, the passing and positional qualities of Milivojević in the build-up of possession from deeper areas will not be maximised. However, while he may not be fully utilised at Crystal Palace, he still has what it takes to prove a sound signing. As well as adding quality on the ball, his defensive intelligence will provide Allardyce’s defence with much needed cover.