Now on loan in Gelsenkirchen, the Serbian centre-back is intent on getting his career back on track as he looks to reassert himself as one of Europe’s most promising defensive talents. Allow bundesliga.com to help familiarise yourself with a centre-back who could be making headlines for years to come.
Matija Nastasic was born on 28 March 1993 Valjevo, a town of 60,000 inhabitants in west Serbia, where his parents owned a coffee shop and his family “enjoyed a normal, average lifestyle”, he told The Guardian. Son of an avid FK Partizan fan, Nastasic grew up travelling to the capital, Belgrade, to watch the countries’ most successful club, who later offered the then 15-year-old a route into professional game.
“I always wore the Partizan shirt […] I just loved football and my team so when Partizan offered me a trial it was a dream come true,” admitted the towering defender, who despite standing out at every level of their youth ranks, would never go on to make a competitive appearance for his boyhood club and instead spent a season on loan with second-tier side FK Teleoptik, making 21 first-team appearances as a 17 year old.
His performances for Teleoptik underlined his potential and didn’t go unnoticed abroad as Italian top-flight outfit ACF Fiorentina made an offer for his services that neither club, nor player could say no to in 2011. “It meant leaving Partizan but it was too good a chance to turn down,” Nastasic says of the decision to leave. “In Serbia you are never sure what is going to happen, so I signed for Fiorentina and moved with my parents to Italy.”
Working under compatriot Sinisa Mihajlovic, Nastasic made his first-team bow when a lack of defensive cover saw him thrust into the starting line-up in the 0-0 draw against AC Milan, who at the time boasted Zlatan Ibrahimovic within their ranks. “Everything happened so quickly,” he said. “I had to adapt quickly.” He did so with aplomb as he went on to enjoy 25 outings for the Viola, making 21 starts and scoring twice in the process.
Performing at a level beyond his years and with several impressive outings under his belt, scouts Europe wide began taking notice of the youngster and after just one season in Italy, Manchester City FC snapped up the talented left-footed centre-back. “I imagined I would maybe spend three or four years in Serie A before perhaps trying my luck in England,” admits Nastasic, whose meteoric rise continued with the Permier League titleholders.
“Nasty”, as he’s affectionately known amongst City fans, initially played a bit part role under Roberto Mancini, but soon leapfrogged England international centre-back Joleon Lescott in the pecking order and was even named the club’s ‘Player of the Month’ in November 2012. In his first full season in England’s top flight, he went on to secure a regular first-team berth, making 30 appearances in all competitions for The Citizens.
Much like he was for Fiorentina, Nastasic was thrown in at the deep end on his City debut as he was named in the starting line-up for the 3-2 loss away to Real Madrid CF in the UEFA Champions League group stages. “If you are a manager and put a player in to make his debut in the Bernabéu, then that tells you everything you need to know,” claimed former England and City head coach Kevin Keegan after the match.
With Roberto Mancini departing in the summer having failed to defend the Premier League title, Manuel Pellegrini was brought in as City’s new head coach and this, combined with a spate of injuries, set Nastasic back in his development. From ankle and calf ailments to knee and thigh issues, the rising star seemed to suffer every injury under the sun. As a result he missed the majority of the 2013/14 campaign before featuring just once in 2014/15.
What Nastasic lacks in pace, he makes up for with a fantastic understanding of how to position himself within a backline and in the words of Keegan (pictured): “He would be my idea of a centre-half. One who can come out with the ball and play.” Despite his young age, Nastasic has also already proven his qualities as an intelligent and battle-hardened defender, having won an impressive 60 per cent of his challenges in his debut season in the Premier League.
Though his career trajectory took a dip in Manchester, it hasn’t prevented the 21-year-old breaking through into the Serbian national team. Nastasic made his debut against Cyprus on 29 February 2012 and has gone on to feature a further 14 times. Back home he’s been hailed as the natural successor to superstar centre-back Nemanja Vidic, which could see him lining up alongside Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic at the heart of The Eagles’ backline.