Away from Reading’s dire season, Andrija Novakovich is making a name for himself. The 22 year-old scored goals for fun last season in the Dutch second tier with SC Telstar, before earning himself a loan move up a division to recently-promoted Fortuna Sittard. His talent has even been recognised at international level, USA coach Dave Sarachan rewarding Novakovich with three caps.
It’s all led to talk that the talented striker could be handed an opportunity at Reading, whether through a recall in January or next season. But Royals fans will likely not know much about what kind of player he is - Novakovich’s handful of first-team appearances for the club came more than three years ago during Steve Clarke’s first season in charge.
Luckily for us, impressed by his development ESPN ran a feature on him a short time ago, in which the American discussed his style of play and what he’s learned so far from his time out on loan in The Netherlands.
Novakovich on his style of play
“I think I’m a bigger guy that likes to do things that a big guy doesn’t like to do. I like the ball at my feet. I’m not just like a target man; I don’t just like to play with my head.
“I like to take guys on and be in one-vs-one situations and be dangerous that way. And I think that’s the unique side of my game, and I think it’s something different from the No. 9 position.”
In the modern game, even at Championship level, that versatility should stand Novakovich in good stead. The quintessential ‘big man up top’ is increasingly outdated as a role on the pitch. Instead, having a forward that can not only take the ball to feet but also run at the defence and get in-behind is worth its weight in gold.
Those traits could even end up pushing Novakovich high up the pecking order fairly quickly. For all of Sam Baldock, Marc McNulty and Danny Loader’s qualities, they can’t lead the line, consistently win headers and bring others into play. On the other hand Yakou Meite very much can (although his technique still needs work), explaining his run of starts as a centre forward even when Sam Baldock has been in the side.
Novakovich on what he’s learned in The Netherlands
“That [regular football in a competitive league rather than academy football] for me, opened my eyes. Yeah, you played well but you have to win, you have to be ruthless, you have to be clinical.
“You get one chance, you have to score. I think that sharpness and that little bit of understanding of these chances, they don’t come all the time. You get one or two, and that’s it. You’ve got to do your best with them. That’s what I wanted to get used to and instil in my game because it’s more meaningful every game, with everything around it on the line. It’s ruthless.”
“I’m still improving and still developing everything. How to take a ball with your first touch, how to maybe get in the right mindset of where you are exactly on the pitch in terms of where the defender is, where to move, where to make the runs and when and get the understanding of people. Then conserving energy but being explosive when I can.”
For young players, going out on loan can be the proper test of how far they’ll go in their career. Although they can refine their technique and style to a large extent at academy level, playing truly competitive football gives them the “ruthlessness”, as Novakovich notes, to make the step up to the first team. Lessons like dealing with veteran defenders and shrugging off the most intense match pressure can’t be learned in the under-23 league.
The class of 2009 all had good loan spells under their belts (Alex Pearce at Norwich City and Southampton, Gylfi Sigurdsson at Shrewsbury Town and Crewe Alexandra), so the transition to playing regularly for Reading wasn’t too difficult. Similarly, Liam Kelly (Bath City) and Aaron Tshibola (Hartlepool United) have benefited from time in the lower leagues.
When he returns from the Netherlands, Novakovich will hopefully be in a good position to go straight into the main squad next season, and shouldn’t need too much of a transition period. His two-season loan experience will probably push him ahead of both Sam Smith - who’s had a tough time on loan at Oxford United - and Danny Loader in the pecking order.
You can read the full ESPN piece right here.