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Ranking Roma’s Youth, #7: Ante Coric

Overhyped or undervalued? It’s time to see what this kid is made of.

England v Croatia: UEFA U21 Championship Playoff - First Leg Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

At the young age of 9, Ante Coric’s family left his native Zagreb to find the perfect club to nurture his prodigious talents, so they went to Germany seeking pitches. First, he tried out at Bayern Munich, where they give kids a series of challenging tasks to measure player potential, and Ante was the first youngster to earn a perfect score. Bayern practically begged him to join their youth academy, but our precocious protagonist was unimpressed with the quality of his would-be peers. Instead, he joined Red Bull Salzburg’s youth academy, which he felt was more intensive and had stronger youth players. It was there, in Austria, that he trained until he returned, at the age of 16, to his hometown club, Dinamo Zagreb—a club renowned for launching the careers of many Croatian stars. After 5 years, 167 appearances, 32 goals, and 24 assists, Coric moved to Roma, where he comes in at number 7 of our U23 countdown list:

Number Seven: Ante Coric

Age: 21

Position: CAM/CM

Prior Club: Dinamo Zagreb

Current Club: AS Roma

Future Comparison: Luka Modric

Who Is He?

The story of Coric is a tale of two, contradictory narratives. On the one hand, he is described as a the next Luka Modric, with a youth coach at Dinamo Zagreb saying “he is a greater talent than Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic were at his age.” That is a mouth-watering prospect, indeed. On the other hand, he hasn’t lived up to the hype from his teenage years, and his valuation peaked at 19 and has dropped 25% since then.

Thanks to this shifting perception, we were able to snag him for a reported €7 million (+ €1 million in bonuses), which could be very shrewd business if he is able to reach his potential. In Monchi’s eyes, that is one hell of a discount on a player that has gained 2 more years of first team experience under his belt.

So, why the drop in value? People called him the Croatian Messi, and with those kinds of comparisons, they expect him to be on the same trajectory—regularly putting in world-class performances as a teenager and helping the team to a Champions League trophy by the age of 20, etc.. By that comparison, of course he has failed. In fact, in his last 7 outings in the Champions League, Dinamo Zagreb has failed to register a single goal, which is concerning by any comparison. But, like with Red Bull Salzburg, he chose Dinamo Zagreb because his focus was on development, not status or winning European trophies. He has not kept pace with the trajectory of the most successful wunderkinds of recent generations, but that was our expectation for him—not his. He clearly marches to the beat of his own drum, focusing much more on long term success than immediate stardom. Coric takes a humble approach of slowly-but-surely developing a rock-solid foundation to build on. The football world evaluates players by taking their current trajectory and projecting it out into the future, but this method fails to pick up on the benefit of Coric’s long-term strategy, possibly making him one of the most undervalued talents in football today.

With that said, Coric does have a few feathers in his cap already. He earned the status as the youngest goal scorer in Europa League history when he was 17. And, he’s also already managed 4 caps for the Croatian national team, which is nothing to sneeze at given the quantity and quality of older midfielders, including Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, and Mateo Kovačić.

What Can He Do?

While we list him here as an attacking midfielder and central midfielder, he is actually so versatile that it is hard to categorize him. For Dinamo Zagreb, he literally played in every single midfield and attacking position on the pitch, scoring or assisting in 6 of the 8 positions he has played.

Still, Coric prefers to be center-left on the field and feels most comfortable in the attacking mid, central mid, and left wing positions. Playing as the left mezzala in EDF’s preferred 4-3-3 would suit Roma very well because Coric has a unique ability to move the ball forward from the middle of the pitch. He is especially adept at making pacy runs through the middle or defense-splitting through balls into space for attackers (see a few examples in the video below).

This will give Roma a sorely missing offensive threat through the middle of the pitch, so we won’t be forced to depend so much on wing play to move the ball forward. With opponents aware of his threat down the center, they will not be able to overload the wings to stall our advances because they will have to guard central attacks as well. His presence could do wonders for Roma’s attack, even in attacks where he isn’t involved.

Coric has stated that he want’s serious minutes this year, which would be unlikely at Roma because he arrives at 5th in the pecking order competing for only 2 spots. Ideally, Coric could convince EDF in pre-season that he should deputize Pastore this season as the backup creative talent in the midfield, moving up to 3rd or 4th in the depth chart. If he can do so, that would force Strootman, Lo. Pellegrini, and Cristante to fight for minutes in a single position, which is less than ideal for them. If Coric does manage to convince EDF of his ability to be 2nd behind Pastore and stays at Roma this year, it is likely that we would see Strootman or Pelligrini going the other direction, since there are not enough minutes for all five of them to be happy, even with the 3 competitions Roma is involved in.

With that said, even if EDF rates Coric highly but doesn’t want to lose Strootman or Pelligrini, it is likely that Coric will be loaned out to another Serie A club. This could be useful for a few reasons.

  1. He chose to return to Zagreb at 16 in part because he found it difficult to adapt to life abroad, saying “I already experienced playing football in a foreign country and it’s not all rosy how everyone thinks.” He is much older now, but it wouldn’t hurt to give him time at a smaller club to adjust to life abroad.
  2. From the age of 9, he has had the weight of high expectations on his shoulders. Since returning to Zagreb, he’s constantly compared to Luka Modric, which he seems to handle well enough, but it can only increase the pressure on him to try to immediately transform into a big fish even as he steps up to a much bigger pond. Loaning him to a smaller club would give him a chance to make the transition in smaller steps and hopefully increase his chances of succeeding in the long run.

What Can He Become?

He clearly has the technical quality to reach the very highest heights in the footballing world. Now, we will finally see whether he has the mentality to match. In this regard, he strikes me as closer to a Torres than a Ronaldo—a player who could be a world-beater for the right club and under the right circumstances but might struggle otherwise. He’s had downturns in form before after making significant errors. For that reason, it is especially important that we support him and give him the slack to find his confidence and his niche in the squad. He still needs to learn that even great players make mistakes, and he will learn this if the fans support him through thick and thin.

He has demonstrated time and again that he will turn down the highest status clubs in favor of what he values. That means that he is less likely to follow in the footsteps of Alisson or Pjanić, and instead we have a chance to adopt him as our own. With the right support, he could be producing highlight reels in the Roman midfield for years to come, helping the club take the final step up to regularly compete for both Italian and European silverware.

So, what can he become? This move to Roma gives him a few more years to show us which narrative was right. At worst, he could be a very solid squad player with flashes of brilliance. At best, he could step out of the very large shadow of Luka Modric and establish himself as one of the best attacking midfielders in the world, leaving future wunderkinds to be compared with him.