Sampdoria fans weren’t sure what to make of Milan Skriniar at first. Serie A didn’t appear to be a good fit for the Slovakian defender, signed from MSK Zilina in January 2016.
Used sparingly by then Samp manager Vincenzo Montella, Skriniar’s first few appearances for his new club were calamitous in the extreme. He quickly become a figure of fun. The punchline to a joke.
There was one game in particular, played on the final day of the 2016/17 season, which exposed Skriniar’s shortcomings. Up against Juventus and the best attacking line in Italy, the Slovakian conceded a penalty and was sent off within just 15 minutes. Sampdoria would go on to lose 5-0 and the fans knew where to point the finger.
In his next appearance, made against Roma at the start of the following season, Skriniar, with the score tied at 2-2 in stoppage time, felled Edin Dzeko in the box, allowing the Bosnian striker to throw himself over a leg dangled in naivety, effectively conceding all three points.
This provoked another debate among fans and pundits over Skriniar’s readiness for the top level.
How times have changed.
Two years later, Skriniar is now considered one of the brightest defensive prospects in the European game, becoming a key figure in the Inter Milan renaissance witnessed of late, making the move to San Siro in the summer of 2017. His positioning and decision-making has improved many times over since his early Sampdoria days and just 23 years old, it’s likely that he will continue to get better.
It’s little wonder then that Skriniar is reportedly attracting attention from the Premier League, with Manchester United in particular believed to be interested in the centre back. Jose Mourinho is a fan of the Slovakian and sees the 23-year-old as a solution to his current defensive issues. If Southampton got £75 million for Virgil Van Dijk, Inter will surely demand a similar fee for Skriniar.
“There are always going to be rumours about a big club looking for you, but Inter are a big club,” Skriniar explained in a recent interview, somewhat quelling reports of a January exit. “The fans can relax, I am happy here. I feel that I am improving day by day, as there isn’t a single area where I couldn’t do better. I am not happy with the way I play now. In any case, it’s not important how I see myself, but how the fans and coaches see me.”
Mourinho and Skriniar might well be a match made in heaven. The Slovakian is the sort of defender the Portuguese has built title-winning teams upon over the course of his illustrious career. At Chelsea, Mourinho had John Terry. At Inter Milan, he had Walter Samuel. At Real Madrid, there was Sergio Ramos.
Skriniar is a throwback to a time many believed to be long gone. He is, in many ways, an old school centre back. A defender who puts defending above all else. That is something of a rarity in the modern game, with centre backs now expected to command a certain level of technical ability. It’s no longer acceptable for a centre back’s only skill to be in finding Row Z, be it with either forehead or foot.
This isn't to say that Skriniar can’t play with the ball at his feet - he certainly can. Comparisons have been drawn with Nemanja Vidic, particularly following the rumours linking the Slovakian with a move to Old Trafford. Not since the days of Vidic have Man Utd had such a defensive rock to build upon. That’s why the prospect of Skriniar joining is exciting to so many. He would set a new defensive standard at the club.
With this move, Skriniar would maybe set something of a precedent for the wider game too. Inter Milan are by no measure a small club in a backwater league, but Man Utd, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, are the most-watched football team on the planet, even in their current state. A move there gives him a more prominent place in the public eye. It would put him in a position to change the defensive zeitgeist in the game.
Football is cynical and soon enough defenders will be expected to be defenders again. It’s not by accident that there is a shortage of solid centre backs across the global game. The zeitgeist has created this shortage, raising defenders to see themselves as more than just mere defenders of the goal.
But by pulling on one side of the bed sheet, the other side has been left uncovered. It can be seen in the likes of David Luiz, a centre back who has scaled the highest heights of the sport despite being derided for his lack of defensive nous. Even Gerard Pique and Ramos, widely considered the greatest centre backs of their generation, have been prone to blunders.
Skriniar’s rise, particularly if it comes at a club like Manchester United, could help change things over the coming years. Of course, it’s unlikely that the game will revert exactly back to the way it was, when centre backs had only two options - put it out or punt it long. But a generational shift is happening.
Look at Van Dijk, a tall, physically strong behemoth of a defender who can play the game just as well as anyone further up the pitch. Skriniar is a player in a similar mould, notable for his passing just as much as his defensive nous. He could have as big an impact on United as Van Dijk has had on Liverpool.
Barcelona and Chelsea have also been linked with a move for Skriniar, but neither need the Slovakian as badly as Man Utd do. What’s more, Old Trafford would provide him with a stage to make his own. At Barca, he would be in the shadow of Pique and possibly even Samuel Umtiti. At Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri would likely attempt to change his natural game to fit his own ideology. Mourinho, on the other hand, needs Skriniar just as he is.
There are weaknesses to Skriniar’s game. Van Dijk can rely on his pace to get him out of any difficult situations. Skriniar cannot. He can also be over-confident on the ball. Nonetheless, he’s the centre back Man Utd have waited a long time for. But more than that, he’s the centre back, or rather the kind of centre back, football has waited an even longer time for.