Josip Brekalo is soon starting his fifth season with Wolfsburg, but he is only a somewhat regular starter since 2018. After just eight appearances for Dinamo Zagreb, and debuting as a professional football player at age 17, Wolfsburg had seen enough and paid €10 million to mold the Croatian winger into a Bundesliga player. He went on loan to Stuttgart pretty soon after his arrival, but since the 2017/18 season he’s made over 50 appearances for The Wolves.
He immediately made a great impact in that same season, helping Wolfsburg stay up in the Bundesliga by scoring and assisting against Cologne in the final round of the campaign. The 2019/20 season already is Brekalo’s best season in terms of productivity – he’s scored three and assisted four, while scoring and assisting three in the Europa League as well.
Josip Brekalo’s transition from winger to a more all-rounded attacker
While he was initially seen as a winger, and he still makes most of his minutes as one, coach Oliver Glasner gave him a lot of playing time as a central attacking midfielder or second striker too. This role seems a good fit, and Brekalo himself is happy to play a more pivotal part as well: “When I play in the middle, I can receive the ball in a central position, play it back, across or shoot myself. My shooting technique is good, and I have more options than when I play out wide.”
These remarks do say a lot about Brekalo as a player. He is very goal-oriented in the sense that he tries to get a shot off as soon as the opponent’s goalkeeper pops up in the corner of his eye. During the 2019/20 season he averaged 2.19 shots per 90 minutes, of which just 0.77 were on target. This comes down to 35.1% of his shots being on target.
His shots were mostly coming from out of the box; 21 of his 37 shots had to travel 18 yards or further. It comes as no surprise that all three of his Bundesliga goals come from outside the box, with a total expected goals of 0.72. All in all, Brekalo’s shooting statistics back up his statement where he’s very confident about his shooting technique. But whether his confidence in his shooting abilities is justified, remains to be seen. For this season he’s over performing his expected goals by a bit, but this is definitely just a small sample size.
A major positive here is indeed his confidence in his own abilities. Debuting as a teenager and moving abroad just a few months later, being loaned out for an extended period of time and now getting more and more minutes in the Bundesliga show Brekalo knows what he can do and that he is willing to put himself out there as a decisionmaker for Wolfsburg.
Josip Brekalo is Wolfsburg’s most creative outlet
The other part of his statement, about having more options centrally than playing out wide, is very revealing about his intentions on the pitch. Next to his eye for goal, he is always on the hunt for a teammate in a scoring position as well. Brekalo averaged 2.79 key passes per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga in 2019/20, while he also contributed 4.56 shot creating actions per 90 minutes. It’s statistics like these that show Brekalo is a very important creator for Wolfsburg, and one the leading creative players in the Bundesliga. His 0.29 expected assists per 90 minutes are similar to Leverkusen supertalent Kai Havertz’ and Bayern Munich engine Joshua Kimmich’ (granted, both played a lot more minutes and have thus proven to be consistent over a longer period of time).
When diving deeper into the Wolfsburg squad, it’s only Maximilian Arnold who comes close to Brekalo’s creativity. The young Croatian is leading the team for both expected assists and key passes per 90 minutes. Arnold does come out on top when comparing progressive passes, he’s averaging 7.13 per 90 minutes whereas Brekalo is averaging 6.75 per 90 minutes. Arnold has been the most used player for Wolfsburg this campaign, with almost twice as many minutes as Brekalo. The upside for Brekalo’s involvement in Wolfsburg danger seems imminent in upcoming seasons.
While there are just three teammates who took part in more fixtures this season, Brekalo’s minutes are pretty average within the squad. This is due to the matches where he just gets substituted in, registering sometimes just as little as eight minutes. It’ll be interesting to see if Brekalo can sustain his involvement in Wolfsburg attacks when his playing time will be more consistent in the future.
The face of a new generation in Croatia
Josip Brekalo debuted for Croatia in 2018, and if his output in national youth teams is any indication, he’ll be scoring his first goals for his country sooner rather than later. His position is often quite different from his role at Wolfsburg though, manager Zlatko Dalic seems to prefer Brekalo playing from the right wing, and even used him as an attacking right back against Azerbeidzjan. Croatia faces an interesting transition, coming down to Earth from a glorious World Cup in 2018, but with regulars like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic getting older.
It inevitably opens up room for new stars the Croatians can cherish, and Josip Brekalo is in prime position to become one of them. Other strongholds for Croatia could be (and are) Filip Benkovic, Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Mario Pasalic. At Wolfsburg his fellow countryman Marin Pongracic looks a promising prospect as a central defender.
What’s next for Josip Brekalo?
Back when Brekalo joined Wolfsburg, a lot of other European teams showed interest as well. Most notably were Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Manchester City. His decision to join Wolfsburg has proven to be a very intelligent one, as it gave him room to get accustomed to football in one of Europe’s top leagues and his loan to Stuttgart has turned out to be smart move too. He climbed his way up to now become one of the main creative outlets for The Wolves.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see him making a move for a Champions League team, although some extra time in Wolfsburg wouldn’t hurt either. Recent rumours have him linked to both Milan, Atalanta and Sampdoria – clubs of which Atalanta and the way they set up under Gian Piero Gasperini seem definitely interesting for a player like Josip Brekalo.