When Nikola Vlasic arrived from CSKA Moscow in a £25m deal last summer, it left many of us scratching our heads. David Moyes and his recruitment team – if such a thing even exists – had failed to address two key areas of the squad – striker and central defence – and instead opted to bring in former Everton flop Vlasic on deadline day.
It was a decision that was seemingly a reaction to not being able to lure Jesse Lingard back on a permanent deal after his dazzling six-month loan spell. Vlasic was the backup option, that much was clear. Other than that, nothing else made much sense. If we needed to spend £25m on someone, it had to be a striker. Instead it was spent on a position that already boasted the likes of Manuel Lanzini, Said Benrahma, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals.
Vlasic had improved drastically from his poor spell at Everton just a few years earlier, when he’d contributed just two goals and one assist in 19 first appearances. He struggled to settle in the Premier League as a teenager, but went on to register 33 goals and 21 assists in 108 appearances for CSKA in Russia.
With that in mind, despite the confusion around the signing itself, it did appear on the surface that we’d acquired a player who was much improved from the one we’d seen on Merseyside. Perhaps this would turn out to be another masterstroke from David Moyes, or perhaps we’d see just how unsuited Vlasic is to English football?
Many will have now drawn their own conclusion, pointing to the latter. Vlasic has struggled to make any sort of meaningful impact in claret and blue since his arrival, scoring just one goal and providing a measly two assists from 31 appearances in all competitions.
His goal was a tap-in in the dying stages of a 4-1 victory over Watford in the final game of 2021 – it was his 16th appearance. To put it bluntly, his first season in Stratford has been so underwhelming it’s hard to remember him doing anything worthy of any real praise. That’s not being harsh, either. It’s just the reality of the situation. In fairness, half of his appearances came off the bench, with just six of his 19 Premier League appearances coming from the start. Vlasic has been underwhelming, but that’s not entirely his fault.
Some have already suggested that David Moyes is slowly bedding him into his way of working, much like he did with Said Benrahma last season. Benrahma’s arrival made a lot more sense at the time, yet Moyes spent the season mostly using him as a substitute. He ended 20/21 with one goal from 33 appearances in all competitions, identical to Vlasic’s return from two fewer appearances in 21/22.
However, Benrahma chipped in with seven assists in his first season, five more than Vlasic. Regardless, this time last year there will have been many fans asking the same questions of Benrahma as we’re now asking of the Croatia international. Is he good enough? Was he a waste of money? Is David Moyes being patient with him? Should we expect him to explode into form next season? Should we sell or give him one more year to come good?
So many questions and, if Benrahma’s second season is anything to go by, we might actually have some answers. The Algerian markedly improved on his first campaign with a haul of 11 goals and six assists in 48 appearances. Much of his best form came during the first half of the season, but he remained an important fixture in Moyes’ thin and tiring squad throughout 21/22.
Not a bad player
So should we expect the same from Vlasic in 22/23? It would be unfair to expect it, as such, but it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if we do go on to see a better and more impactful Vlasic when next season gets underway. He’s not a bad player, otherwise Moyes wouldn’t have sanctioned the deal.
His failure to sign a striker because he doesn’t want to sign one for the sake of signing one says all you need to know about Moyes’ mindset when it comes to recruitment. He certainly sees something in Vlasic, which makes me wonder whether we’re seeing a Benrahma 2.0 in the making, with Moyes slowly bedding him in and giving him time to readapt to life in the Premier League.
Some will claim a whole season is too long for a player to adapt to life at a new club, but if he comes good next season and delivers 17 goal contributions like Benrahma did after his settling in season, I don’t think we’ll hear many fans complaining. The fact he’s still only 24 certainly works in his favour, too. He’s two years younger than Benrahma and seemingly being given the same pathway to becoming an important first team regular.
If this is Moyes’ plan, it might once again be a trademark Moyes masterstroke after all. We’ve become so used to those, haven’t we?
On the flip side, should he be sold? Absolutely not. Given the thin nature of our squad, this coming summer needs to be dominated by incomings, not outgoings. And anyway, if he is sold, we’re certainly guaranteed to make a heavy loss on the £25m we paid for him.
It makes more business sense to keep him in the squad, give him one more season and see if he can deliver what Moyes saw in him in the first place. He’s a useful squad player if nothing else, and I certainly believe he’ll be a lot more effective in claret and blue next season.