One of Tottenham Hotspur’s biggest X-factors in the 2021-22 season, Dejan Kulusevski exemplified the adage of “hitting the ground running” when he arrived at the club last January. In that window, Spurs tried but ultimately failed to add a number of players they had targeted. Most notable was Porto’s Luis Díaz, who Spurs lost out on after first attempting to “gazump” Liverpool. Towards the end of the January window Spurs’ Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici returned to the familiar well of Italy and Juventus by adding duo Rodrigo Bentancur and Kulusevski.
The duo immediately became critical contributors to Spurs in their slim prospects of finishing in a Champions League spot. Out of the two, Kulusevski was the more attractive option. At Juve, Kulusevski was sputtering under new manager Massimiliano Allegri, his playing time diminishing. Since Cristiano Ronaldo left Juve, the Turin-based Serie A superpower has experienced a fall from grace and Kulusevski became a bystander. Even after Kulusevski was loaned out to Spurs, Juve supporters were more than happy to see him leave — with the expectation that his move would be made permanent over time.
Kulusevski coming to Spurs became the perfect sliding doors moment for the Swede as he entered a much improved environment under Antonio Conte and with a squad that was making the correct adjustments and moving in the right direction. The marriage was not only perfect for Kulusevski, but it was also perfect for Spurs. Outside of Harry Kane and Heung-min Son, Spurs had been trying for years to find a perfect complementary piece outside of their two stars. Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn were tried time and time again under multiple managers, but Kane’s and Son’s impact were brought to the next level when Kulusevski came into the fold.
For starters, Kulusevski immediately grabbed the right-wing position and made it his own as part of Conte’s preferred 3-4-3 shape. With Kulusevski in that spot, Spurs finally had an attacker playing on the right side who was left-footed. We know how important and critical this can be — Gareth Bale and Arjen Robben are two examples of recent players who excelled on the right in large part due to the threat they posed by cutting inside with their strong foot.
In the right-sided attacking position, Kulusevski, with Son on the opposite side, were basically asked to be play in dual number ten roles. It was the perfect role for Kulusevski, who has the ideal characteristics for the spot. Despite being just 22, Kulusevski plays like an experienced veteran. He has exceptional decision-making skills, he is extremely strong on the ball and does well to hold off defenders. While he is certainly not the fastest player, he makes up for it through his hold-up play and his unique ability to win individual duels against defenders in dangerous areas. It has been said here and there before, but Kulusevski is a lot like Kane in the sense that he will not beat you by sheer athleticism and speed, but he can find ways to manipulate defenses and defenders alike because of his footballing intelligence and his game-reading ability.
On top of being a unique player in the attacking third, “Deki” proved to be a perfect cog in Conte’s set-up because he could not only do what is asked of him in the Italian manager’s patterns and tactics of play, but he can ad lib and improvise on the spot. Kulusevski is also a constant runner. He has spoken out on preferring to “suffer” — a theme that Conte reiterated at the start of his Spurs tenure. With Kulusevski, Spurs get a player who does not take any moments off. He is not only dangerous in attack or on the counter, but he is a composed player when defending and links up well with Spurs’ right wing-backs when playing out from the back, particularly Matt Doherty before the Irishman’s season-ending injury.
We have talked before about how Conte simplifies instructions and directions based upon what a player can do well and how those skills can integrate with the rest of the team. So it comes as no surprise that Doherty’s best run in his Spurs career came after Kulusevski got used to the setup and the way Spurs played. After years of being a team primarily focused on build-up and attacking via the left-hand side with Sergio Reguilón and Son, Spurs became much more balanced and dangerous when Kulusevski established himself at Spurs, as opponents were no longer able to focus on Spurs’ left flank.
And despite all of the great things that we can say about Kulusevski, the truth of the matter is that he is still getting disrespected across football media. When Spurs signed Richarlison towards the end of last week, many people seemed to forget about Kulusevski in this current Spurs iteration. In just 18 matches last season, Kulusevski contributed five goals and eight assists. If you extrapolated that out across an entire league campaign of 38 games, Kulusevski would be just outside of the top 10 in goals and lead the league in assists by a pretty wide margin — Mohamed Salah finished with just 13. And this is despite the fact he is still just 22 years old and was officially registered into the Premier League on the very last day of January.
Maybe it is the way he plays or the fact that his name has been around the European markets for quite some time, but Kulusevski seems to be forgotten about when people think of the best under-25 players in the world. As mentioned, Kulusevski has been in European club elite circles for a number of years since he broke through with Atalanta in the tail-end of the 2019 season. I Nerazzurri, known for producing talents particularly in Italy, sent Kulusevski out on loan to Parma where he quickly made a name for himself — so much so that Juve spent big money on him in that season’s January window before sending him back to Parma on loan to continue with his development. At Parma, Kulusevski was awarded Serie A’s Best Young Player of the Season, tallying ten goals and nine assists. So while Kulusevski did not experience that same run of form during his time at his parent club of Juve (his playing time decreased when Juve loaned in Federico Chiesa under Allegri), he was still a player believed in at the time despite his young age and inexperience. It should maybe not come as a surprise that Deki’s transfer to Juventus was orchestrated by none other than Paratici himself.
So while Juve supporters were happy to see Kulusevski leave, he once again looks like that dangerous player many Serie A watchers saw during his time at Parma. At Parma, albeit in a worse league, the entire setup was based upon him as he was clearly their best player. At Spurs, Kulusevski is not even second fiddle and he has the perfect complementary traits and the perfect manager to develop him even further.
Kulusevski has all of the intangibles for managers to work with and he is proving time and time again just how important he can be for Tottenham. There are abilities in his game that can turn him into one of the better players in the league as he continues to get used to playing in England. And with Kane (28) and Son (30 on Friday) getting older, Spurs have the perfect player in Kulusevski to take the load off the main Spurs duo. He has a perfect opportunity to develop into one of the best attackers in England.
Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.