At the start of this summer, Sasa Kalajdzic joining Wolverhampton Wanderers would have seemed fairly unlikely.
The giant Austria international striker was fresh from a second successive successful season in the Bundesliga and, with just a year remaining on his contract at Stuttgart, he was one of the best-value forwards in the transfer market.
One of the biggest clubs in Europe seemed to beckon for one of the biggest strikers in Europe, a 25-year-old with his best years theoretically still ahead of him.
That move did not happen, in part due to Kalajdzic’s injury record and also, perhaps, due to an underwhelming summer with the national team.
That put Wolves back in the running for a player who they believe fits the profile of centre-forward that Bruno Lage has coveted since he arrived at Molineux more than a year ago. And with only days left in the window, Wolves are set to complete the transfer.
Given his height, Kalajdzic is certain to stand out. But he is more than simply a beanpole striker to head home crosses and win flick-ons…
It is no surprise that Kalajdzic is strong in the air.
He showed that in a 3-2 win against Borussia Monchengladbach earlier this year, with a classic headed assist for Omar Marmoush from a deep, left-wing cross.
Kalajdzic’s towering knock-down gave the Egyptian, running from deep, a simple finish.
And data from smarterscout — which gives players a rating from zero to 99 based on either how often they perform a given action compared to others in their position or how effective they are at it — highlights just how dominant he is in aerial duels.
Smarterscout’s “weighted duels” ratings assess a player’s effectiveness in one-on-one contests on the field — adjusting the results to reflect the quality of opponents. Put simply, competing for a header with Raheem Sterling is weighted differently than against Virgil van Dijk.
In Kalajdzic’s case, the results show he is among the top performing players in Europe when it comes to aerial duels both at set pieces (92 out of 99) and in open play (90 out of 99).
Lage has made no secret of his wish for a tall, physical target man since before this year’s January transfer window, and by signing Kalajdzic, Wolves appear to have delivered.
But there is more to his game.
Kalajdzic was included in The Radar, The Athletic’s scouting guide for last summer’s European Championship, which profiled his style and background and suggested possible suitable destinations.
And given the high number of quick, wide forwards at Lage’s disposal, Kalajdzic’s ability to drop deep and play passes will be of particular interest to the head coach.
His rating of 59 out of 99 for progressive passing puts him above average for players in his position and underlines his ability to thread passes through for onrushing forwards, as well as receive the ball in advanced areas himself (xG from ball progression, 59 out of 99).
Kalajdzic also rates slightly above average for xG from shot creation (53 out of 99), showing his contribution towards his team’s chance creation as well as chance conversion.
His quality on the edge of the box was on show in two of his most recent appearances for Stuttgart.
In May, during a 2-2 draw against Bayern, his perfectly judged flick from a Tanguy Coulibaly pass gave Philipp Forster a clear run on goal.
And Forster raced clear but drew a save from Manuel Neuer.
And six days later, his clever backheel in a 2-1 win against Cologne gave Wataru Endo a chance at goal from which he almost scored.
But it is in the penalty area that Wolves supporters will be desperate for an impact, and Kalajdzic’s performances for Stuttgart stack up when it comes to receiving balls and having shots close to goal.
As The Athletic highlighted at the weekend, Wolves had the highest average shot distance in the Premier League over the first three rounds of matches and struggled to create high-quality chances close to goal.
Kalajdzic, in contrast, appears to specialise in close-range shots and goals, especially with his head.
And he displayed his finishing skill with both his head and his feet as Stuttgart fought back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Union Berlin in December 2020.
His shot map from 2020-21 — his most prolific season for Stuttgart — shows a high volume of efforts within 12 yards of goal, with an average shot distance of 12.5 yards.
Injury kept him out between August and January last season but his shot map from his most recent campaign shows a similar pattern and his rate of 0.37 goals per 90 minutes remained healthy, albeit well down from the high standards of the previous year.
Comparing Kalajdzic’s shot maps with Wolves’ from the opening three games of the season shows a clear difference in the positioning of their efforts at goal.
Lage will hope that Neto, Guedes and their fellow wide forwards can exploit Kalajdzic’s presence closer to goal.
He is noted for his surprising pace for a player of his size, and especially for the quality of his touch and link-up play.
So how did one of the Bundesliga’s most dangerous strikers end up at Molineux?
His injury record inevitably played a part.
While Bayern gave serious consideration to making an offer to Stuttgart, the German champions ultimately decided he was not quite ready to lead the line for them.
Dortmund, meanwhile, are understood to have been concerned by his injury record as they looked to replace Manchester City-bound Erling Haaland.
The shoulder injury that ruled him out for 16 games last season between the end of August and the end of December was not his first lengthy lay-off since joining Stuttgart from Austrian side Admira Wacker in 2019.
A ruptured cruciate knee ligament sustained shortly after he arrived in Stuttgart ruled him out for 27 games in his debut Bundesliga season. And more minor issues have seen him miss a further five Stuttgart games, three of which were linked to COVID-19.
There was a six-month lay-off during his Admira days due to a fractured metatarsal and three months missed due to damaged ankle ligaments.
A difficult summer with his national team also did little to help his chances of completing the “super club” move that at one point seemed on the cards.
Having finished last season for Stuttgart in fine form with six goals between early February and mid-May, Kalajdzic was unable to carry it into the Nations League with disappointing displays for Austria against Croatia, Denmark and France, having reported for international duty with a niggle to his knee.
Wolves, however, have decided that for an initial fee of just £15million ($17.5m), Kalajdzic is worth the calculated risk.
If the club can manage his body and help him deliver on his talents consistently, the giant forward appears to fit the bill for Lage.
(Additional contributor: Raphael Honigstein)
(Photo: Helge Prang/GES-Sportfoto via Getty Images)