I Followed Héber’s Career in Croatia—Here’s What I Learned

NYCFC’s new striker spent the last three seasons in Croatia’s top flight. Journalist Ivan Žeželj writes about how it shaped Héber as a player.

By Ivan Žeželj

The last time I watched Héber play was in early December, the final game of the Croatian First Football League before winter break. It was a comfortable 3-0 win for his team, HNK Rijeka, with Héber himself contributing a brace. His first was a header from a free kick in the 13th minute. But the second goal was the one that will stick with the four thousand people in the stadium that day.

Rijeka were 2-0 up with 15 minutes to go. Héber got the ball on the left touchline, almost at the center stripe, with a defender closing on him. That’s the moment the Brazilian brought a touch of samba to the field. He wheeled around the defender with a slick turn and played a one-two with a teammate off a heel chop. Héber slipped behind the defense and into the box, where another Ronaldo chop bought him space to shoot. He took a moment to scan the keeper’s position, and—bang: a right-footed curler off the far post and into the net.

It was Héber’s last and, in my opinion, prettiest goal for Rijeka. It was also the last time he’d wear their famous white shirt.

If NYCFC fans need an introduction to their new striker, I’d point to this goal: this is the player you’ve got. But don’t stop at highlights. A little backstory and a deeper look at his profile and stats will help you get to know Héber Araujo dos Santos.

Year One: A Striker Becomes a Winger

The first time Héber first left Brazil on loan, it was already obvious that he was destined for bigger things than the Armenian Premier League. Playing as a center forward for Alashkert, he was the country’s top goalscorer in 2015–16, with 16 goals and 7 assists in 26 games.

He was ready to move up, and his break came with Croatia’s NK Slaven Belupo. At the time the club was coached by Željko Kopić, the rare Croatian manager who kept up with modern soccer: high pressing, building from the back, etc. His teams overachieved with mediocre players and were always a black cat to the bigger sides.

It was a pivotal move for Héber. As he later told me in an interview, it was Kopić’s decision to change his position that brought out his true potential. The coach needed a strong central striker and thought Héber would do the job, but he soon concluded the Brazilian was best deployed on the left side as an inverted winger, or “inside forward,” as guys in Football Manager call it.

Slaven Belupo’s mediocre squad required Héber to get more involved in the buildup, frequently dropping deep to receive the ball and distribute to his teammates. Kopić recognized his forward’s smart movement and gameplanned around his off-ball runs that created space for teammates to move into. Despite all the extra chores, Héber finished 2016–17 with 10 goals and 2 assists—not league-topping numbers, but good for a midtable side. It was enough to convince HNK Rijeka to buy the Brazilian for almost half a million euros, one of the highest fees in their history.

Year Two: A Versatile Goalscorer

When Héber arrived in the summer of 2017, Rijeka was coming off a domestic double under manager Matjaž Kek, having won the Croatian Cup to go with their first ever Croatian First Football League title. But their best striker would be scooped up by Dinamo Zagreb the following winter, forcing Kek to find a new goalscoring threat. The burden fell to the versatile Héber.

Unlike at Slaven Belupo, Rijeka had a quality team supporting the attack, so Kek revived the old center forward Héber for a couple games until the team could buy a prolific new striker, at which point the Brazilian returned to the left side. The only constant was Héber playing good soccer.

Héber’s touch map last season as an inverted left winger and occasional center forward.

I admit that the best I’ve seen him is at left inside forward, but he does show a nose for goal and a knack for capitalizing on his teammates’ coordinated movements. Of the 15 league goals he scored in 2017–18, 12 were first-time shots inside the box. He scored every 97 minutes that season—an impressive record for a player who lines up on the left, not as a central striker.

Unfortunately, Kek also trained his team like a madman, sometimes pushing Héber to play through muscle problems. Héber’s time in Croatia has been marred by a string of short-term injuries, which may have ultimately kept Rijeka from selling him for more.

Year Three: A Complete Attacker

Fast-forward to this year. Kek left Rijeka early in the season and was succeeded by Igor Bišćan, a young Croatian manager with a solid résumé. In Bišćan’s system Heber again became an important link in the buildup chain. Although he sat out 2019 as the club prepared for a transfer, Héber showed quality in the first half of the season. Nine goals in 15 appearances this season might not sound particularly amazing, but stats suggest he’s been playing some of the best soccer of his career.

Consider: he was Rijeka’s leading offensive contributor with 0.75 goals and 0.58 key passes per 90 minutes, putting him among the league leaders for both finishing and creating chances. Although his preferred foot is officially his right, he’s almost equally proficient with both, scoring five of his goals this season with his right, three with his left, and one header. And he’s devastatingly efficient, placing 61% of his shots on target and converting 29%.

I’ll try to illustrate Héber’s chance creation abilities. One of his strengths is acceleration and pace. In the clip below you can see how he manages to win an aerial duel and burst forward into the attack, beating an opponent to get the assist.

This is a typical Héber assist, but it’s not the only kind in his attacking arsenal. Below you can see how efficiently he handles a 2-v-3 situation where he’s providing support for his squad’s natural striker.

This season Héber completed 4.23 throughballs in the opposition box per 90, another stat where he placed among the league leaders. He attempted 4.98 dribbles per 90, an average number for a Croatian First Division attacker, but that’s due in part to Rijeka’s style, which wasn’t overly reliant on Héber.

What makes him complete is not ignoring defensive tasks. Both Kopić at Slaven Belupo and Kek at Rijeka emphasized defense first and attack second, and Héber got used to carrying his weight off the ball. His 2.63 interceptions per 90 this season were a solid contribution for an attack-minded player, and he’s never had a problem tracking back on the opponent’s fullback or winger or running deep into his own half for a tackle, clearly:

Héber’s versatility has been key to every European system he played in. He’s sometimes been used to play in low-block systems where his only chances came on the counter, but he’s also comfortable in a system geared toward breaking down a defensive block, where his playmaking ability and off-ball movement can shine. He’s shown quality in various positions, including left and right attacking mid and center forward. This is something managers appreciate a lot nowadays—having one player for various positions, systems, and gameplans (see: Guardiola, Pep).

Did New York City FC get themselves a prolific goalscoring center forward? I can’t say. But with the right system and players around him, I’ve seen firsthand that Héber can do great things. ❧

Image: mollsie, Rijeka, Croatia

Written by The Outfield

Twitter: @OutfieldNYCFC