When Nenad Milijas signed for Wolves in the early summer of 2009, he was arguably the club’s most exciting Premiership signing. Yes it’s true; Kevin Doyle was the club’s record purchase. But it was Milijas that had that hint of the exotic. After all, it was the captain of Red Star Belgrade no less – conjuring images of Dejan Savicevic, Robert Prosinecki and the club that had been champions of Europe as recently as 1991.
However, concerns about the player were there from the outset. The esteemed European scout turned pundit Tor-Kristian Karlsen listed the purchase as one of the worst buys of the summer, describing Milijas as follows:
“Great set pieces but if you want to have a prototype of a player who does not fit English football, you can take out a patent on Nenad Milijas. Classic Balkan playmaker, gifted but about as mobile as a refrigerator.”
There were moments of magic in that first season but, in truth, Karlsen’s assessment proved spot on. The set pieces were there for all to see, never more dramatically than in his appearance off the bench to provide two assists and a valuable point at Stoke City. The gifts were displayed fleetingly but memorably: a thunderbolt against Bolton, a delicious back heel to help win the late penalty versus Aston Villa. And the lack of mobility was evident in abundance – written through every performance he nearly delivered.
And yet the nagging suspicion remained – if the platform for success is in place, Nenad Milijas could still prove an asset. For all the false dawns, the axing and recalls, the bald statistics of Milijas’ Wolves career to date read:
1,532 minutes, 4 goals, 7 assists.
1,532 minutes. The equivalent of 17 games. Extrapolated over a league season it equates to something like 9 goals and 16 assists – a contribution that compares favourably with almost any midfielder in the game.
Nonetheless, it seemed likely that the mercurial playmaker’s days in the Premiership were numbered. Indeed, it was something of a surprise that Milijas was not offloaded in the summer – to France, to Turkey, to Russia … frankly anywhere but England.
And then a funny thing happened. Milijas became useful again. Injury to Adlene Guedioura was followed by the suspension of Karl Henry. Even then, the Serbian man would most likely have been ignored for the visit to Chelsea but for the ineligibility of Michael Mancienne to play against his parent club. As a result, Mick McCarthy was forced to make use of his £2.6m signing – and so he began to talk up the player’s ball retention skills:
“We can’t chase the ball for 90 minutes – we have to keep it. And if we do that, it certainly stops the wave after wave of attacks. Nenad’s a very talented player who can keep the ball and pass it to a shirt the same colour as his. We’ll have to do that because if you just keep giving it back to them by booting it up the pitch, it will keep coming back.”
On the face of it, Stamford Bridge seems the unlikeliest of venues for the Serb to prove his worth. However, he performed admirably and it can hardly have been lost on McCarthy that the player did exactly what was requested of him:
As the Opta data shows, not only did Milijas keep the ball with remarkable ease, he also managed five shots on target as Petr Cech faced what was statistically the busiest afternoon of his Chelsea career. For a team like Wolves, a player who can keep the ball and provide a goal threat is one the club ignores at its peril. It perhaps also requires a re-evaluation of the way Milijas has been used by his employer thus far.
It was always one of the curiosities of Milijas’ 2009-10 season that he was dropped from the side just one game after McCarthy elected to switch to a 4-5-1 formation. The new system proved a success, with fellow left-footed playmaker David Jones to the fore. But after its initial appearance in the home draw against Liverpool, Milijas himself saw just an hour of league action in the remaining four months of the season.
This seems an anomaly for the simple reason that Milijas would appear to be a player made for a 4-5-1 system. The extra man in midfield ensures simple passing options are regularly available and would allow others to do his running. After battling gamely in a 4-4-2, Milijas was discarded just as Wolves began to operate with a formation that may have allowed him to flourish.
Stamford Bridge may have been a false dawn. Nenad Milijas may be out the team again by next week when Henry and Mancienne return. But the weekend was a welcome reminder of the talents of Wolves’ gifted Balkan playmaker with the mobility of a refrigerator.