It felt like not just a goal but a release, a way of making a longed-for expression of frustration, of indignation and of relief.
Luka Jovic’s first goal back at Eintracht Frankfurt had taken three days and, in on-pitch terms, ten minutes to arrive and it was worth it as he fired into the Schalke net from his compatriot Filip Kostic’s delivery.
It was probably all in the mind. After all, this was always what Jovic did in his glorious first spell at Frankfurt. Score, score and score some more, with deadly, decisive technique.
The context made that easy to forget and made it look heavier with meaning. When he helped himself to a second, again provided by Kostic and finished with a lighter touch but with no less craft, in stoppage time to kill the game – the headlines were immediately set.
Jovic had already equalled in less than half an hour his goal tally in the duration of a miserable 18 months at Real Madrid, in which the cards were always stacked against him after his €60 move.
It began with the club considering loaning him before he had played a first team game, continued with meagre opportunities, nagging injuries and a rebuke for tabloid-splashed quarantine breaches. It ended with him returning to the club where he made his name, apparently with his tail between his legs.
This wasn’t really about redemption, or self-validation, though. It was, in the words of Frankfurter Allgemeine’s Ralf Weitbrecht, “an evening with lots of goosebumps”, which is something in these times when Deutsche Bank Park – one of the more vocal Bundesliga arenas – is reduced to an echoey hush, punctuated by individual shouts.
Despite the setback, there is still plenty of reason to believe that the Serbian has buckets of talent, and that in the right situation he can become a scorer at the highest levels of the European game.
He’s still only 23 years old
Development can be a bumpy road. When players become breakout stars at a young age it’s tempting to assume that they’re on a rocket ship bound for the stars. But that’s seldom the case. Sure, Kylian Mbappe might just keep getting better, and the same for Erling Haaland, but for most mere mortals there are setbacks along the way.
Raheem Sterling exploded onto the scene when he was just 17, but then struggled to maintain his superstar form at Liverpool for two seasons before hitting new heights at Manchester City. Jack Grealish had already failed once as a teenage Premier Leaguer before building himself back up in the Championship and didn’t finally hit his fully terrifying form until this season. He’s two years older than Jovic.
Many players, even great ones, don’t get their first bit of the big-time apple until they’re older than Jovic is now. Luis Suarez was older than the Serbian international when he transferred to Liverpool. Robert Lewandowski, who has dominated the Bundesliga for a decade, first with Borussia Dortmund and now with Bayern Munich, first became a regular starter when he was the same age Jovic is now. All of which is to say that a year and a half of mostly sitting on the bench at Real Madrid doesn’t erase the fact that Jovic has enjoyed immense success at a very young age, and that success remains the best predictor of future success.
Jovic’s stats are fine
Before Jovic left Frankfurt, his numbers were really good. Really, really good. They were the kind of numbers that, well, earn you a giant transfer fee move to Real Madrid. The year before his transfer, he scored 17 goals which tied him for third in the Bundesliga and he scored at a rate of 0.68 goals per 90 minutes – the third fastest rate of anybody who played over 900 minutes.
His expected goals were similarly impressive. At 0.60 xG per 90 he ranked eighth in the Bundesliga, at 21 years of age.
And the truly scary thing is that those numbers were slightly worse than the season before when he rang up the third highest xG per 90 in the league with 0.79, behind only megastars Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Lewandowski.
But, because as a youngster he only played a little over 900 minutes his raw totals of eight goals and expected goals flew under the radar.
At Madrid he’s barely played, but in the roughly 750 minutes he’s been on the field between La Liga and the Champions League his underlying numbers have actually been quite solid.
He’s still averaging 0.49 xG per 90 minutes, roughly half a goal per match. What has changed is that he’s struggled horribly to convert those chances, scoring at roughly half that rate.
Now, it’s possible of course, that going from Germany to Spain, Jovic suddenly forgot how to score goals. Stranger things have happened.
But it’s much more likely that he’s just in a 750-minute slump, the kind of thing that happens to strikers across the globe all the time. But, when you’re young and at Madrid and Karim Benzema is a world class striker who happens to be your competition, you don’t have the luxury of failing in front of goal. It’s certainly understandable that he’s not playing, but that doesn’t mean he’s performed in a way that should make you worry about the path of his career.
Less luxury at Real
When you have one of the best strikers in the world, having a 23-year old backing him up is a luxury. It would be one thing if Benzema were starting to decline with age, but the last few seasons have been some of the best of his career.
It would be another if you had a young striker in Jovic who was demonstrating that he was clearly not good enough for this level. That’s not this situation either. Instead, Madrid find themselves in the middle.
Jovic still looks, for all intents and purposes, like a young striker who could turn into a superstar. He’s also not going to be playing regularly at the Santiago Bernabeu, he also moved for a huge transfer fee and the associated wage package.
Meanwhile Madrid, like the rest of the world are mired in the financial no man’s land of playing a season with fans in the stands, with an uncertain financial path ahead of them.
They’re also on the process of attempting to renew the contracts of Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos while pursuing soon-to-be free agent David Alaba. Loaning Jovic out makes sense.
He needs to play lest his temporary dip in form becomes permanent. It may even eventually make sense for Madrid to sell him and let him achieve the heights his early career suggest he’s capable of somewhere else.
But all of that doesn’t make Jovic’s potential any less real. He looked for all the world like a great prospect before Madrid brought, and in the since, not much has really changed.