Former City defender Savic is the unsung hero of Atleti's new generation

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 16.8.2021.

Former City defender Savic is the unsung hero of Atleti's new generation

With Atletico Madrid taking the title last season, it went mostly on Luis Suarez's account because the Uruguayan scored 21 goals in the league. Marcos Llorente was credited as the second most important player in the squad. Yet, Atletico Madrid didn't win the title on offence, that is not what their game is based on. For Diego Simeone, defence is his calling card.

In the past, Atleti had a brand in their centre-backs with Diego Godin and Miranda being the columns on which the first Cholo's generation was built. They were as big of stars as Radamel Falcao or Diego Costa were.

This second generation of Argentinian manager has a leader who surprised even Atleti fans but they are not denying it anymore. Stefan Savic became the most consistent and main centre-back of Atletico Madrid in the last campaign. With the mentioned general and former captain Godin stating that it was he who has the most credit for the latest title in Atleti's cabinet.

"It is worth noting, little is said about Stefan's season. He is the best player, the most regular, of Atletico de Madrid. It is true that Marcos Llorente has played great games, like Koke, Suárez, Oblak, but Savic has had an impressive consistency. He has only lost two games. He has supported the defence because he has had the losses of Gimenez and Felipe and Hermoso have played something else. Savic's season is impressive," stated the Uruguayan.

It is true, of the games Savic played in La Liga over the 2020/2021 campaign, only two were lost, the 2:0 against Real at Bernabeu, and 2:1 against Athletic away. In the five games Savic missed in the league, Atleti lost two, against Levante and Sevilla, and drew one versus Huesca.

The 30-year-old Savic was rewarded with a new contract until 2024 after the season was concluded!

One of his partners in defence, be it with a three centre-back pairing or two, Jose Gimenez signed a deal until 2025. Although the younger Uruguayan was deemed as Godin's heir, both as a leader and the best defensive player, Savic wound up at that place unobtrusively. As he has been conducting himself all of his career.

While Josema was always deemed a top CB prospect, Savic had a quick rise to the top of the game while experiencing drops in club quality level.

Montenegro native Savic started his professional career in Serbia's capital, Belgrade. Playing for a club that had a surprise entry into the first league, Borca, representing the neighbourhood which is only mentioned as a butt of jokes by the locals. Playing at a stadium with terraces resembling those high-school asphalt courts have, with only three or four seatless rows of big concrete stairs for the rare audience members.

Playing 26 games total, Savic quickly caught the eye of the then sovereign ruler of Serbian football Partizan. A factory of its own talent, Savic remains one of the few players that made it to the top whilst only passing through the club. Having stayed for only one season.

The appearances in the Serbian Super League was enough for Manchester City to sign the 187 centimetres tall player in 2011 for €12,000,000. Yet after only a year and 21 games played for the English side, Savic moved to a club that was good to Partizan players as a stepping stone, Fiorentina.

Staying in Viola for three seasons, Savic ended up playing 108 games, scoring four goals and getting in Serie A experience after the Premier League.

Savic was never labelled as the next big thing coming from the Serbian league as some players like the brief Manchester United player Adem Ljajic was. Savke, as is his nickname, had to work up and up, which is hard for players to do when they reach the top of the footballing echelon which City was starting to be while he was there, winning the league.

Fighting against dismissive comments when he was in Serbia, climbing back to the top club after lifting trophies in England and playing with the best players available, yet Savic had faced his greatest challenge in life when he was only 20 years old. That is when his father, a mayor of their small municipality in Montenegro called Mojkovac, committed suicide. So it’s not surprising that what broke so many top players didn’t scratch Savic’s conviction.

Comparable and contrasting is the career of Partizan's academy product and fellow former Viola and City player Matija Nastasic. Labeled as the next big defensive thing coming from the country that gave EPL Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic, Nastasic seemingly never had the mentality to compete the way Savic did. To push on after City categorized him as insufficient.

Both of them left Partizan in 2011, but didn't have the same trajectory as Nastasic went to Florence first, then Manchester. But after Etihad, Nastasic settled in at Schalke where he had fallen into obscurity aged 28 even though he was solid for the team whose relegation finally made the Serbian move from it. Reportedly, back to Fiorentina.

In the summer of 2015, Nastasic joined Schalke, while Savic went to Atletico to be its third and often fourth-choice centre-back. The now mainstay of Simeone's fort was bought for €12,000,000. His partner Josema is thought to be worth €100,000,000 when City came knocking last summer offering €15,000,000 fewer. While Savic's worth is estimated at €25,000,000 although he was rarely the topic of rumours even though they are constantly created. Italian clubs were interested with Juventus and Inter looking into Savic in the past two years, along with Tottenham.

But Savic earned Simeone's trust through his sacrifice and playing the Cholo way. Even though injuries tormented him the two seasons before the title-winning one, especially the 2018/2019 one. Yet, Savic is now at his peak at the same time Atleti is.

"Since I arrived in 2015 the club has grown a lot, that has been noticed on and off the pitch and today we have a team to be able to compete with the best in the world. I love the project, how the club and the team is growing," stated the defender.

Now Savic has played more games for Atletico than Miranda ever did, quite close to Jose Gimenez (216) too, as the Montenegro representative wore the red and white shirt 202 times, scoring three goals. Winning 117 games and losing just 14% of them, being a part of the title-win as well as the Europa League triumph in 2018.

A captain for Montenegro, Savic is not only an important screw in the club’s unit, Savic is a general for Simeon as well.

"Being captain or not is not so important, the important thing is that the team is playing well, that I can give my best and help the team to grow on and off the pitch. With the hierarchy I have after six years playing here and with my age I think I can still contribute a lot to help the team grow and keep winning."

Creating a strong bond with the club’s goalkeeper Jan Oblak since they started sharing the dressing room, the two were most deserving of Atleti’s defensive record. Second best in the top five leagues with only 24 goals conceded, with Savic not letting the ball go past the Slovenian in 16 of the matches he played.

Even though he is a tough and ripped defender who doesn't care for his safety, as if Simeone created him himself, his idol was a far more nuanced, technical player, now also showing in Stefan’s unappreciated ability to take the ball forward.

"I always watched Serie A. I liked Alessandro Nesta a lot, I used to watch him. He was my idol since I was a kid."

It seems that Savic broke through his injury issues as well last season, as he played almost the entirety of games in a hard-fought long-contested title race. While his take on recovery is comically Montenegrin, as his countrymen are stereotyped in the Balkans as people prioritizing rest and siestas over all else.

"Sleep a lot, naps of up to two or three hours. It's something that's compulsory for me, the rest is normal."

Representing his small country 56 times, scoring five goals, Savic sees his origin as a reason he had to work harder. While it's quite possibly the reason his reputation isn't as close to some defenders who don't even have 40 games in top five leagues.

"It's not easy for a player coming from a small country to get here. There has to be a lot of hard work, you have to prove yourself more than others. I always believed that the time would come when I would appreciate what I do and how I do it. And it has come, but I'm moving on."

With all the commitment he plays with, the adversity he stoically overcame, and the unintrusive way in which he conducts himself while being at the top of the competitive sport, playing for a hard, unforgiving man, Savic deserves recognition. Although seeking it actively through social media or pompous statements would make him give up on what made him, hard work and letting his shoe studs do the talking. Not to mention it would make him miss on his naps.



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