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Meet Ruslan Malinovskyi: Europe’s hidden Gem

Before we delve into just how good Ruslan Malinovskyi is, it’s important to first look at Atalanta’s success, and the chain of events that led to the Ukrainian midfielder becoming an integral part of Gian Piero Gasperini’s side.

As of recent, Italian outfit Atalanta have became endeared by the footballing world, intertwined with idealisms and conceptions of optimised attacking football. For many, they encapsulate the truest way in which the beautiful game should be played- they play on the front foot, they create attacking overloads to leave their opponents stranded, and above all, they score goals. Well, quite a lot of them.

Last term, they amassed a staggering 98 league goals. In Italy, the only side to even meander relatively close to that tally was Antonio Conte’s rejuvenated Inter Milan side, who scored 81 times. And, across Europe’s top five leagues, no more than two sides outscored Atalanta- those being Champions League winners Bayern Munich (100) and Manchester City (102). Bear in mind, these clubs own a place up in the highest of footballing echelons and boast squads laced with the most expensive assets in the game. Atalanta’s record signing is Colombian forward Luis Muriel from Sevilla for £19M.

As good as Muriel is- the speedster has scored 45 goals and notched 12 assists despite starting just 38 games for the club, which is more than good enough for a similar article of his own- this piece isn’t about his talents. Instead, it is about the captivating qualities of his teammate, who similarly floats under the radar.

Let’s be honest, in the present era of inflation and extortionate transfer fees, £12.6M is rather meagre. A lot of players from England’s second tier accumulate fees exceeding that mark- and who knows what that figure will get you in five years time. Not a lot. So, rewind even close to two years ago and it would seem bizarre that a fee just shy of £13M would be forked out for one of Europe’s most proficient creative players. But that’s exactly what happened.

Meet Ruslan Malinovskyi. Oh, you haven’t already? Well, you will be waxing lyrical by the time you’ve finished reading, that’s for sure. The likes of Josip Ilicic, Robin Gosens and previously Alejandro Gomez (who departed for Sevilla in January) all earned plaudits for their roles in helping to transition Atalanta from Serie A water-treaders to continental wave-makers. Yet, for whatever reason, the elusive Ukrainian’s displays seemingly haven’t received the appraisal and exposure that they so evidently warrant, even though his craft and creativity provides the key to open doors and ripple goalnets. He also scores a fair few of his own, too.

Malinovskyi in the Champions League match between Atalanta and Real Madrid this season.
MADRID, SPAIN – MARCH 16: Ruslan Malinovskyi of Atalanta Bergamo during the UEFA Champions League match between Real Madrid v Atalanta Bergamo at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano on March 16, 2021 in Madrid Spain (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Malinovskyi was signed from Genk in the Summer of 2019, the same time that they acquired Muriel (I’ve seen worse transfer windows, I can tell you that). Genk are a real institution of talent, and have produced players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Timothy Castagne, Leandro Trossard, and Steven Defour- to name a few. You get the point, they’re pretty good at what they do and it would be naive to downplay the impact that they have had in nurturing the Atalanta star.

And his first season- which was dovetailed with the finest in Atalanta’s history as they reached the Champions League semi-finals– was hardly a roaring success. The Shakhtar Donetsk academy graduate had performed well in limited minutes by scoring eight times and assisting three in merely 12 starts, but the fortunes that his side were embracing put the opportunity of experimentation to bed thanks to the potential risk it entailed. Besides, perennial creator Alejandro Gomez was still a chief cog in the set-up and he, just like his teammates, was reaching new heights.

Hindsight suggests that the Argentine may have taught Malinovskyi a thing or two about how to be, quite simply, a footballing architect. For, the following season, he would explode- but rising from periphery to indispensability didn’t happen overnight. Just four months ago, Malinosky wanted out of La Dea due to a lack of minutes and prior to the turn of the year, he had only started three league matches.

Filling the void

Everton, Leicester City, and Leeds United had all been keeping tabs as a January exit looked increasingly likely, but when the aforementioned Gomez left Bergamo under a cloud, questions and doubts loomed large over how they would replace the diminutive attacker. After all, he had encompassed Atalanta’s fearless offensive fluidity during his six-and-a-half-year stay- he was the heartbeat of the side, the captain, the player who pulled in allured viewers like magnets. The king.

Atalanta supporters adored him. Opposition defenders dreaded him. Neutrals embraced him. Losing a player of that magnitude can take years to replace, or worse still, they can never be truly replaced. Atalanta had became accustomed to losing some of their prized assets to bigger, more wealthier clubs in the window, however, this one was going to inflict new levels of pain.

Malinovskyi filled the void left by the legendary Alejandro Gomez, who is pictured celebrating with Atalanta team mates.
Atalanta’s players celebrate after Atalanta’s Argentine midfielder Alejandro Gomez (Papu Gomez) (C) scored a goal during the UEFA Champions League group D football match FC Midtjylland v Atalanta in Herning, Denmark on October 21, 2020. (Photo by Henning Bagger / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP) / Denmark OUT (Photo by HENNING BAGGER/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)

Or so it was thought, anyway. Ultimately, they didn’t need to delve back into the transfer market, or shoehorn a current player into Gomez’s position. In Malinovskyi, they already had a ready made replacement chomping at the bit to finally show the world what he could do.

Malinoskyi more than repaid the trust that manager Gian Piero Gasperini handed him by scoring eight goals and laying on 12 assists, a league high and a personal best. That was done in 35 league matches and 21 starts, the large majority of which came in the second half of the season. He too has gained the approval of the Atalanta faithful, quickly elevating his way into their hearts with his predatory passing ability and sledgehammer-esque strikes from range. His very best form has been on show recently, where he’s scored or assisted in each of his last 11 appearances in all competitions (seven goals and nine assists).

It’s extremely impressive, but, if you scratch beneath the surfaces, you may just be blown away by how good he really is- well, if you’re not already, that is. The symptoms of reading on from here include: scratching your head wondering why you haven’t heard of him and writing a formal plea for your club to secure his signature. Don’t worry, though, that can be reasoned with.

What does Malinovskyi bring to the table?

Typically, Malivoskyi operates in the number 10 role behind the striker, but he has also underwent previous spells deeper into midfield and out wide. So, it is ideal to start with the influx of creativity that he provides to his rather fortunate teammates.

This season, he has dispatched 76 key passes- the fourth best across Serie A and there is little shame in being bettered by Hakan Calhanoglu, Luis Alberto and current Liverpool, Inter, and (shockingly) Watford target Rodrigo De Paul. It should also be noted that all three have played a lot more minutes than Malinovskyi’s 1786. But now, we will be seeing how the 28-year old fares in comparison to fellow attacking midfielders across Europe per 90 minutes- and this is where the real statistical eye candy truly shines through.

He averages 0.43 goals per 90 minutes, which places him in the top 11% of who he is being pitted up against. Clearly, he is capable of getting into good goalscoring positions and he takes an average of 3.65 shots p/90, putting him in the top 2%. That could do with some improvement, though, as only 34.3% of those actually end up testing the goalkeeper.

As you would expect, his creative numbers are substantially better, and he ranks in the top 1% for a number of related stats p/90; his assists (0.54), key passes (3.37), progressive passes (7.56) and shot creating actions (6.23) all cement him in that exclusive percentile and transmit volumes of how well he is performing.

Malinovskyi also makes 4.08 passes into the final third p/90 and 2.94 passes into the penalty area, implementing him into the top 7% and 3% respectively. In addition, he carries a sense of composure and can handle intensive pressing his way, making 9.98 passes under pressure (top 2%).

And, Malinovskyi tends to press high himself, too, frequently breaking upfield to stop teams from playing out from the back and cutting off passing lanes- p/90, he makes 7.81 pressures in the attacking third, which has him in the top 5%. In Gasperini’s high-octane, dynamic system, doing so is paramount.

Along with being an evidently first-class creator, the playmaker possesses a profound dribbling ability that, once again, shares company with that of Europe’s elite. He dribbles past 2.83 players p/90 (top 13%), makes 9.38 progressive carries (top 6%) and enters the final third via a carry 3.33 times (top 4%), making him a challenging proposition to defend against regardless of what aspect you analyse.

So, it should come as little surprise why Thomas Tuchel reportedly has Malinovskyi pencilled near the top of his Summer shopping list as he looks to stamp his mark on the Chelsea side in a first full transfer window. The West Londoners, who are preparing for a Champions League final this weekend- are not the only top side said to be vying for his services, either. Recent reports suggest that they will face stiff competition from PSG, and Atalanta’s domestic rivals Inter Milan, with a fierce bidding war inevitably set to ensue.

There is a school of thought that the upcoming European Championships could prove decisive to his long term future. Major tournaments often serve as auditions for coveted talents, an opportunity to see what they’re made of on the big occasion against some of the finest players. Malinovskyi’s Ukraine will harbour attainable aspirations of venturing far next month and with good reason, having outshone the star-studded Portugal to top their qualification group. They certainly stand a good chance of progressing from Group C, too.

Malinovskyi, who was born in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, debuted for his nation in an International friendly against Latvia in March 2015 and has gone on to earn 33 caps since, scoring six goals. No doubt, he will be the centrepiece in former Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Schevchenko’s plans and any hopes that they have of having a memorable tournament will filter through the Serie A starlet.

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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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