Shaking off the 'Croatia's Arjen Robben' tag and forging his own path, Josip Brekalo has come of age at Wolfsburg in 2019/20. bundesliga.com profiles the fleet-footed attacker...
Position: Winger/ second striker
Country: Croatia (11 caps)
A graduate of the same Dinamo Zagreb youth academy that produced the likes of Zvonomir Boban and Luka Modric, Brekalo made his professional debut at 17. He moved to Wolfsburg in summer 2016, but began his first full season of Bundesliga football on loan with VfB Stuttgart, scoring his first top-flight goal in a 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund. The 5'8" right-footer was recalled by parent club Wolfsburg during the 2017/18 winter break, however, and it's probably just as well. After netting a crucial goal in the 1-1 draw with fellow strugglers Mainz in February 2018, it was his final-day brilliance against Cologne - another goal and assist - that gave the Wolves the result they needed to salvage a place in the relegation play-offs. He duly added to his tally in the first of two legs against Bundesliga 2 side Holstein Kiel as the 2009 Bundesliga champions avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth.
Now in his fourth season of German football, Brekalo is fast approaching 80 Bundesliga appearances. With less than a third of 2019/20 remaining, the former Dinamo talent has already tallied a single-season personal best of three goals and four assists, as well as producing three of each in Wolfsburg's run into the UEFA Europa League knockout rounds. He's also turning heads at international level, accruing 10 senior caps for Croatia since coming off the bench to set up a goal for Augsburg's Tin Jedvaj on his debut in a UEFA Nations League win against Spain in November 2018. The Wolfsburg tyro previously represented his country at all youth levels, notably top-scoring with six goals in 2019 UEFA European U21 Championship qualifying. His overall rating on EA Sports' FIFA 20 is 76 with a potential of 84.
Plays a bit like: Mario Götze
Brekalo was talked up as a right-footed version of Bayern Munich legend Robben in his early days, but has since been repurposed in a more central attacking role by current Wolfsburg coach Oliver Glasner. The Croatian's pace, nifty feet and eye for goal, coupled with his pint-sized stature, all make for one tricky customer not too dissimilar to peak Mario Götze.
"I can make use of my strengths much better than before," Brekalo said of his successful transition from wide player to second striker. "When I play in the middle, I can receive the ball in a central position, play it back, across or shoot myself. My shooting technique is good, and I have more options than when I play out wide."
Watch: Josip Brekalo saved Wolfsburg's bacon against promoted Paderborn on Matchday 3 of 2019/20
Did you know?
Brekalo could find himself recreating his childhood with his fraternal sparring partner, Filip, in the not too distant future. The younger Brekalo, who is a full-back by trade, received a Dinamo scholarship in 2018 and was promoted to the U17s within 12 months. The teenager has also won 15 Croatia youth caps.
What they're saying
"I see huge potential in Josip. He continues to show that he wants to be here, and will only get better." - Glasner
"He would have become a brilliant runner if he had continued with athletics." - Brekalo's former athletics coach, Slavko Petrovic
Keep an eye on...
While Brekalo was busy banging in the goals for the Croatia U21s in their 2019 Euro qualifying win against Moldova in August 2017, Marin Pongracic was quietly going about his business in defence, recording a debut shut-out. The Germany-born central defender - who played for the Bayern youth team - is yet to lose at U21 level, and is also unbeaten in two Bundesliga appearances since linking up with his countryman during the January 2020 winter break, making the switch to Wolfsburg on a long-term deal from Red Bull Salzburg as a two-time Austrian Bundesliga champion.
Mamadou Karamoko also breathed Bundesliga air for the first time in the early part of 2020. The 20-year-old made a late cameo in a 4-0 drubbing of Mainz on Matchday 23 - reward for some eye-catching displays in front of goal for the Wolfsburg reserves in Germany's fourth tier (12 goals and three assists in 20 appearances). And to think he "nearly joined Lotte" just six months after swapping Racing Strasbourg for the Wolves in summer 2019. The as yet uncapped forward is eligible to represent France and Ivory Coast.