Ranko Veselinovic joined the Vancouver Whitecaps with a fair amount of hype around him. Serbian fans raved about him and Transfermarkt deemed him one of the ‘Caps most valuable players. He took some time to see the field due to visa issues but ‘Caps fans finally got their first look at him at the MLS is back tournament. He was awful.
Veselinovic struggled mightily to adapt to MLS in his first season. On October 5th of last year I published an article entitled “yikes” that looked at how the Whitecaps centre backs compared to other centre backs around the league. This was Ranko’s chart:
In almost every stat Veselinovic was in the bottom 25% of centre backs. Truly, being in the 25th percentile would have been a big improvement for him in many stats. By the end of the season he had improved slightly, thanks to some time paired with Erik Godoy.
But he was still not looking like the hot prospect that he was hyped up to be. This brings us to his performances so far this season. It has only been 4 games so far but Veselinovic has markedly improved. Here is how he stacks up so far.
Now that’s a lot better. True, there are still obviously some pretty clear holes in his game. But compared to how much he struggled in 2020 this is a very significant improvement.
His 1v1 defending in particular has come a long way. He has only been dribbled past once in the first four games of 2021. In 2020 he was dribbled past almost once every single game. A prime example of this improvement can be seen in the clip below from the game against Montreal. In 2020 this exactly the type of situation where a speedy and clever player like Quioto would have blown by Veselinovic and been through on goal. But this time he made a well timed tackle to break up the play.
Veselinovic has won 72% of his headers so far compared to only 56% last season. This has both been a boon defensively and offensively. Veselinovic has had a number of looks off the Whitecaps’ deadly set pieces and it is only a matter of time until one of those chances finds its way into the back of the net. This can be seen in the fact that his is in the top quartile for centre backs in terms of xG+xA. Veselinovic currently averages 0.09 xG per game which means he can be expected to score somewhere around 3 goals over the course of the season. This is a big help for a Whitecaps team where every little bit helps offensively.
Now, we must be careful not be too triumphalist. Veselinovic still has flaws, big ones. His passing still leaves a lot to be desired. Veselinovic plays passes that are conservative and not particularly accurate, a truly devastating combo. Hopefully when Erik Godoy and Michael Baldisimo, two guys who can actually pass, are both fit Veselinovic will be under less pressure to try and play out of the back himself.
Concentration and positioning are not necessarily strengths of his either. Sometimes he is too slow to react to a developing situation and misses the chance to win back possession. His miscommunications with Jake Nerwinski are the stuff of legend. But make no mistake, he is improving. If he can improve his 1v1 defending to the extent he seems to have then there is reason to believe he can improve on the other aspects of his game as well.