Charlotte FC have continued there commitment to building for the future in the last few weeks with multiple signings for the newly created Crown Legacy. Perhaps none are more high profile than Nikola Petković, a midfielder from Serbian side FK Čukarički.
Petković’s star rose considerably after making his debut for the Serbian National Team last month, doing so against the USMNT in a friendly match. It is reported that Charlotte had to fight off plenty of competition to secure the 20 year old’s signature, and their belief in the player was displayed with a significant transfer fee of $3 million, one of largest fee’s paid for a player in the clubs short history.
Petković is a right-footed midfield player who has experience playing in multiple systems, but has most commonly been used as a single-pivot 6 or on the right side of a double pivot. This positional versatility already adds extra value to the player. Additionally, the roles he has often performed so far in his career show potential translation to playing as an 8 or as a wide-right midfield player.
Petković arrives at Charlotte with great pedigree having now represented Serbia at Senior Level, but has also consistently represented Serbia at youth level from Under 15’s to the Under 16’s, Under 17’s, Under 19’s and Under 21’s – a testament to his potential as a prospect. Along with his experience at international level, Petković has logged over 700 minutes of professional club football, the majority of these coming in the Super Liga Srbije, the top tier of Serbian League Football.
Petković has a wise head on young shoulder when his team is in possession. He is vocal in organising build up and has a great understanding of how to manipulate the opposition. Take for example this passage of play that ultimately results in a goal.
The first thing to notice is how Petković moves into position to receive the ball for the second time in the passage. Rather than take a more direct diagonal run to the space, he makes sure he is always behind the attacking player and out of his vision so that he does not go with him to apply once he receives the ball.
After a scan over each shoulder, Petković elects for the bounce pass back to the defender, where we see the next interesting part of the passage.
Only a short while after the defender receives the ball again, Petković starts orchestrating the build up with assertiveness beyond his years. He calls for the pass to be played into the midfielder with the view to bouncing it outside. Despite the defender rejecting the ball inside to the midfielder to be played to the space on the left, he decides to play it over there directly himself. You can see that this has come as a result of Petković’s instruction and not of the defender’s own intuition, as the defender’s eyes did not scan this area until Petković alerted him to it.
Take also this moment in another build up phase, from later in the same fixture.
From this, we can see Petković doesn’t even need the ball at all to be able to impact the build up phase – he understands how he can manipulate the oppositions structure to create space for others as a deep midfielder. His movement is not with intention of receiving the ball (we see no gesture or real ‘showing’ for the ball) but clearly to manipulate the positioning of the oppositions number #10 and free his midfield partner to carry the ball into the space he has now been granted.
In just 6 seconds, we go from a situation where no clear options of progression are open:
To a situation where the midfielder is driving forward with the ball and has plenty of options, with the opposition scrambling in a transition phase. All of this comes from that one piece of structure manipulation from Petković.
Overall he boasts a very mature game. His awareness of the field combines with his already developed ability to scan the field when his team is in possession, which he was able to showcase against the USMNT in the friendly played just last month. This was arguably his best performance as a pro and gave him the chance to showcase all the on-ball ability that makes him such a tantalising prospect.
An interesting exercise with this video is to count the number of times we see a scan from Petković, and the variation of his scanning when it comes to playing in different areas of the field.
The clips of his ball playing ability in the final 3rd here are promising and were also there to be seen at times during his games for FK Čukarički.
To see these instances of confidence playing forward in the final 3rd add to Petković’s ceiling as a player. When combined with his traits shown earlier, you can see how he projects as a player who can thrive in a ball dominant system.
When discussing Petković’s positional versatility, the off-ball side of his game must be considered, as this is what creates more questions about where and how he should be best deployed on the field.
Firstly, his size and athleticism does not project well to playing the single pivot, especially not in a ball dominant system. In a team that has the majority of the ball, the single pivot is relied upon to cover large spaces in transition as well as thrive in duels, whether they be in the air or up against ball carriers. Petković stands at 5’11, while most players who thrive in this role tend to be at least 6’2 and above. Combine this with Petković’s slender frame (although this is something that can improve given his age) and his current profile does not project well to the role.
Further, Petković’s smarts and instincts when in-possession, unfortunately, do not translate to off-ball moments just yet. He can often be caught out by runners around him and/or runners that he is man marking. This can make for high-level chances for the opposition, as shown in the clip below (Petković is the player on the right side of the centre circle when the clip begins):
Moments like these are common in Petković’s game. They’re made especially concerning by the fact that this situation initially does not offer any real threat, but by one player being loose, it becomes very dangerous. In this particular instance, it lead to a goal.
This also shows the issues when it comes to his athleticism. Other, more athletic players committing the same error may be able to recover with speed. This is something he does not possess in his game yet.
It is almost the reverse to what we saw earlier from Petković’s ability to manipulate opposition structure when his team is in possession. Offensively, he can turn settled moments into threatening ones with his high on-ball IQ and, defensively, his issues off-ball can do the same.
The next development for his game will be to prevent doing this for the opposition when they are on the ball, to the detriment of his own team. Because Petković is such a young player, this is an area of his game that most coaches would see as fixable as he gains more experience.
Despite only being a short while into his career, there is enough already in Petković’s game-film to show that he can be a highly productive MLS-level player in the near future. Though he will initially join Crown Legacy – a decision that I do feel is best for his development – I believe he would be fully capable of handling MLS should he have been signed directly to Charlotte FC. I would not be shocked to see him feature in the match day squad at some stage during the 2023 season, with the projection being that he would be a significant contributor to Charlotte FC come the 2024 season.
Charlotte currently play a 4-2-3-1 system, one that I believe will look to give the team the majority of possession in most games (based off Head Coach Christian Lattanzio’s quotes and the game strategy he employed last season). This system is the one that will give Petković the best chance to succeed, i.e., playing on the right side of the double pivot. This set-up gives him the best chance to show off his best qualities, whilst also looking to mitigate some of the flaws in his game. Being so young, there is plenty of time for him to work on eradicating these issues from his game.
Alongside other signings made in the last few weeks, Petković will make Crown Legacy a must watch when possible for any Charlotte FC fan this season.