Dani Olmo: A Spaniard’s unorthodox way to the top through the Croatian league

Photo: GNK Dinamo official Twitter

Dani Olmo’s next destination was one of the most discussed and written about transfer stories in January 2020 before the 21-year-old finally opted to leave Dinamo Zagreb for Red Bull Leipzig. But how did a Spaniard end up in Croatia in the first place? This is the story of Dani Olmo’s unorthodox way to the top.

As with most stories, there are two sides to how Dani Olmo’s transfer to Dinamo came about: an official story and an unofficial.

The official story is that Dinamo spotted Olmo early on in his career, more precisely at age 16 playing for Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy. Olmo had finished top scorer for his age group in four out the five last seasons at the time when Dinamo approached him and Barcelona about a transfer. They pitched themselves with: “look at the players we’ve helped from a young age and introduced to European football: Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka Mateo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic, and Dejan Lovren. His father, Miquel Olmo, a former professional footballer and manager for a second division club in Spain at the time, worried that it would be hard for Olmo to break through at Barcelona despite his outstanding talent. Miquel, therefore, helped Dinamo and convinced Dani to make the move for the better sake of his son’s development as he saw Dani’s chances of making it at Dinamo as significantly higher.

The unofficial story, that is well-known on the streets of Zagreb (albeit not confirmed) includes former Croatian prodigy Alen Halilovic:

Halilovic was brilliant with the Dinamo youth teams and drew many comparisons to a young Lionel Messi. In terms of style of play, they were genuinely fair comparisons. He debuted for the Croatian national team at age 16 and was the most hyped player in Croatia for a long time. Dinamo, however, knew about his poor mentality, poor priorities, and negative sides and wanted to capitalize on Halilovic whilst his stock stood in high value. They, therefore, sat the price tag on Halilovic for €15 million. Inevitably, big European clubs got aware of Halilovic and started to swarm around him. Most notably FC Barcelona. The Catalonians, however, said that there was no way that they’d pay €15 million for Halilovic. They said that they could offer €2-3 millions. So, in negotiations, Barcelona therefore offered Dinamo Dani Olmo as a counterpart in their offer for Halilovic saying: “we will give you Dani Olmo. He is 16-years-old, he’s very talented but he’s only 3rd or 4th in the queue to join Barcelona B from La Masia. So, if he wants to join Barcelona B, he will have to wait a few years. Barcelona more or less thought the same of Olmo as Dinamo did of Halilovic: “he’s a promising player, but he will not make it big”. Dinamo, however, accepted Barcelona’s proposal and got Olmo plus €4-5 million for Alen Halilovic (who is currently 24-years-old and plays for SC Heerenveen on loan from Milan).

No matter which story is correct, Miquel Olmo played a key part in convincing Dani to join Dinamo.

“They told me I was crazy. I was a coach in the Spanish second division and they massacred me for it, saying that I was ruining my son’s career. Leaving Barcelona was not easy, especially if you were the captain and playing for the youth national team. It was the most difficult decision in his life”, said Miquel Olmo in an interview with Calcio Mercato in August 2019.

The Olmo family identified Dinamo Zagreb as a place with great conditions for young players to develop and for young players to get opportunities in senior football. Dani saw minutes on the pitch as more valuable than training at La Masia.

Photo: GNK Dinamo official Twitter

“The reason for my arrival here is very simple: coming to Dinamo is the best option for my football development. In Dinamo, great conditions for young players are great, great for young players, and early opportunities in senior football. I know players who have played here like Modric, Halilovic, Kovacic, Mandzukic, Lovren, and today they play in Real, Barcelona, ​​Inter, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, so it’s more than clear that Dinamo has done great work”, said Olmo when he signed for the Croatian giants.

For Dinamo and its’ fans, it was a sensation that the club had acquired Barcelona’s U16 captain who was a Spain youth international, the top scorer in four out of the past five seasons he had played and one of the best players of his generation at perhaps the best football academy in the world. Zagreb native, Dinamo supporter, and Croatian football expert, Hrvoje Herman, tells FootballElements.com about Olmo’s Dinamo career:

­– Dani immediately joined Dinamo’s second team, Dinamo II. It’s normal for the young, new players to do. At the time they played in the Croatian third division and Dani played regularly there. But it wasn’t long until he made his first-team debut in February 2015, aged 16. He continued to play with the second team until 2017, however. It was the right thing to do, he gained senior experience there and got accustomed to the Croatian- and Dinamo style of play, says Herman and continues:

Photo: GNK Dinamo official Twitter

– When you look at Olmo’s statistics from 2017 to his last season for Dinamo Zagreb in 2019-20, you see the step by step improvement in minutes, goals, assists, and overall contribution to the team. He’s a textbook example of how a player should be developed.
When he started playing for Dinamo’s first team in 2017, he was a talent. In 2018, he was a good player for Dinamo. In early 2019, he was one of Dinamo’s best players and from the start of the 2019-20 season, he was by far Dinamo’s best player which he proved with his European performances in the Champions League. As a Dinamo supporter, I can say that Dani Olmo is surely the best talent Dinamo has produced since Luka Modric. Olmo was maybe even better than Modric was whilst at Dinamo, Herman concludes.

Throughout his time in the Croatian capital, Olmo played in a 4-2-3-1 system where he was deployed in all midfield positions. As a CM, AM, LW, RW, or ST as a false nine. Olmo’s very intelligent, his versatility and adaptability are two of his greatest strengths. He can roam the final third as a winger or attacking midfielder to score and create chances for his teammates, but he can also be a ball-winner on the central midfield and be an integral part of the first phase of buildups. His composure in possession, ball retention, and ability to control the ball in tight and crowded spaces are some other of his greatest strengths. He’s practically impossible to dispossess on a good day without fouling him. Out of 266 ball touches in Champions League, he only miscontrolled 16 and was only dispossessed 14 times. Per 90, he only miscontrols 2.17 out of 44.3 touches on the ball. A good example below in Dinamo’s game against HNK Rijeka in the Croatian league:

Olmo averaged 0.36 G+A and 8.8 dribbles with a 50% success rate per 90 with Dinamo throughout the 2019-20 season. He made 15 goal contributions (8G+7A) in 20 matches across all competitions. 3 goals and 3 assists in 9 1.HNL Liga matches and 5 goals and 4 assists in 11 Champions League matches (including qualifiers). In the 2019-20 Champions League group stages, Olmo played six games, overperformed his 1.35 xG and scored 2 goals, made 2 assists, made 2.67 shot-creating actions, made 0.50 goal-creating actions, and averaged 26 passes per 90 with a 74% passing completion (note that he takes more risk-taking passes than most players as he was the team’s main creative outlet). Throughout his six seasons at Dinamo, he averaged 0.52 G+A per 90 in 1.HNL Liga.

Olmo truly made a name for himself in both Croatia, Europe, and the world of football during his six-year stay at Dinamo Zagreb. One of Spain’s best midfield maestro’s with mesmerizing technical qualities and intelligence with the ball at his feet. Olmo then combines that ability with a big will to drive the ball towards goal, whether it’s carrying it with his own two feet or with threaded through-balls. He also has the capability to smash the ball home into the goal from long-range should he get the chance. His youth coach from La Masia, Denis Silva Puig, labeled him as a “natural born goal scorer”. He’s acclaimed himself as a creative midfielder with a natural eye for goal.

Just a few notable achievements in his plethora from his time at Dinamo are:

-4 league titles
-3 Croatian cup
-1 UEFA Under-21 Championship 2019 gold medal
-UEFA Under-21 Championship 2019 team of the tournament
-UEFA Under-21 Championship 2019 Final MOTM
-UEFA Champions League Breakthrough XI 2019
-1.HNL League Player of the year 2018
-Best 1.HNL League player 2019
-Best 1.HNL League U-21 player 2019
-1.HNL League Team of the year 2019
-SIMPOSAR Balkans International Sports Symposium – Discovery of the year 2019
-GNK Dinamo Zagreb Player of the Year 2019
-National team debut (in which he scored) for Spain

So, what’s behind this success?

– Dinamo has helped Dani build a great mentality to always keep going and never back down, a Balkan mentality. But that alone wouldn’t work. Dani also has a very humble, intelligent (fluent in Croatian), and he has a great personality that cooperates with that mentality. Alen Halilovic and Ante Coric (Roma player on loan at Almeria) have both been considered bigger talents than Dani Olmo, but they didn’t have the personality and priorities to succeed like him. He is very serious about his craft, says Hrvoje Herman.

Although his favored position is as a number 10, his versatility and the quality he brings to each position makes it hard to pinpoint his best position. Statistics nevertheless show that he’s most efficient at attacking midfield and left-wing. In 53 games as an attacking midfielder, he has scored 20 goals and made 12 assists, and in 25 games as a left-winger, he scored 6 goals and made 10 assists. What’s been hard to study at Dinamo, however, is his defensive contribution as they are such a dominant, offensive force. The need for him to contribute defensively has never really been there. But, the determination to help out wherever he’s needed with whatever is needed of him has always been there. The same goes for his strength in ground duels. But it’s first at Leipzig you can see his defensive contribution as well.

At Leipzig, Olmo has stood for 19 pressuring actions on an opponent who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball per 90. He has won three quarters out of the tackles he’s made and averages 0.48 interceptions per 90. One should remember though, that Olmo’s been deployed as a left-winger and attacking midfielder by Julian Nagelsmann – and those position doesn’t require much defensive contribution in general. But Olmo is nonetheless proving himself to be a decent defensive contributor so far. Offensively he’s scored 1 goal and made 1 assist in 5 matches for Leipzig and he’s averaged 0.48 G+A and 0.35 npxG+A per 90. Olmo hasn’t played as much as he initially thought for Leipzig, but he maintains that it was the right move to make now, as in the same way Dinamo was in the past.

Photo: FootballSlides.com

Whilst Modric, Kovacic, Corluka, Mandzukic, and Lovren showed Olmo that Dinamo is a good place to go to develop and present yourself to the European scene as a young player – and now Dinamo is bearing fruit from the Olmo-effect. Dinamo recently signed Arsenal U-23 captain, Robbie Burton, who is looking to go the same route as Olmo. Seemingly so, Dinamo continues to low-key be one of the finest talent factories in Europe.