19 Midfielder Elche CF (on loan from Chelsea) Croatia
2014 has been...
Inevitable. A real breakout star at Hajduk in 2013/14, Pašalić was highly regarded in Croatia long before he made the first team at the Stadion Poljud. Quite often the ‘next great hope’ can flatter to deceive, but young Mario made his mark quickly and never really dropped off.
A goal on his first start for Bili in the opening round of the Prva HNL in 2013/14 set the tone for the season that followed, but his two goals against league leaders Dinamo Zagreb a few weeks later were a real statement of intent. By the turn of the year, Pašalić and Hajduk were flying and another strong showing against Dinamo left supporters believing that a league title was not beyond them.
As the points tally increased, so did the number of scouts attending Hajduk’s matches. Nevertheless, there was always something impending about Chelsea, so well represented in the region, and the move was duly confirmed in early July.
Before moving on, Pašalić was able to reflect on a hugely successful first full season of top-flight football. His eleven goals, all scored from midfield, was only bettered by centre forward Anton Maglica. While the goal tally was fairly sensational for a teenager, what was, and is, truly special about Mario Pašalić is his versatility and ability to adapt his game to suit a number of positions.
Hajduk stalled in the latter stages of the season, eventually finishing third, but their young starlet delivered from attacking and defensive midfield positions, both flanks and, on occasion, playing just behind a specialist striker. Gutsy, quick and clever, there’s an awful lot of young Luka Modric on show here and the comparisons have been forthcoming, even if young Mario is considerably taller. Indeed Pašalić looked, at one stage, to be very close to making Niko Kovac’s Brazil bound Croatia squad but missed the cut despite attending the provisional thirty-man get together ahead of the tournament.
The jump up to central midfield in the fast and tough English Premier League was likely to be a little too much to ask just yet, but the slightly more tolerant surrounds of Elche’s Martínez Valero was just the ticket and a loan move to the Valencia club was arranged not long after Pašalić’s transfer to Chelsea was complete.
So far it’s been very much baby steps for Pašalić with a mix of starts and sub appearances, but he is getting game time and gradually becoming acclimatised. Making a debut against Barcelona at the Nou Camp is a nice memory to have too.
More of the same, really. While we can never endorse the block purchasing of young players that Chelsea indulge in, we certainly can’t criticise the way they are handled once on the payroll at Stamford Bridge. The days of seeing a talented youngster gradually wither in the reserves are no longer the norm and the development of Thibaut Courtois is testimony to a club that has nailed a strategy for developing players and protecting their assets even if said development happens elsewhere.
It’s not a level playing field of course, Chelsea have the resources to be able to buy and sell at huge cost, but how else could a club like Elche get their hands on one of Europe’s best young players? He’ll be a useful asset too, having secured La Liga status for a second consecutive season – the first time since 1977 – coach Fran Escribá has the opportunity to begin building something useful.
Pašalić is in a good place. He’s getting game time, which is all we could ask, and the undue burden of pressure he may have felt elsewhere has been restricted. That could change should Elche get dragged into a relegation battle, but for now it’s all about gradual progress.
On the international front Pašalić has never really hit full throttle at Under-21 level, or even at Under-19 level for that matter, but he has already made his debut for the Croatian national team, with that ‘born in Germany’ tag perhaps focusing Niko Kovac’s attention a little.
Indeed Pašalić represents the gradually emerging next wave for Croatia and he will fully expect to shape his country’s future footballing identity alongside a stellar supporting cast of Jedvaj, Kovacic, Rog, Halilovic, Brozovic and Pjaca. Exciting times await.
"What happens to these young Chelsea signings is one debate, what they do when out on loan is another. The signs are the West London outfit have an interesting player on their hands in Mario Pašalić. Early days with Elche are positive, particularly his maturity and ability to work between the defensive and attacking lines. His energy, and physical capacity, make him an asset for Elche who rely so much on their work ethic." - David Cartlidge
C Moving in the right direction. Keep going.
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