Matteo Kovacic is one of the finest talents to play the beautiful game. Breaking through at the age of 16 at Dinamo Zagreb, Kovacic had racked up 50 appearances for Croatia before he was 25. Javier Zanetti at Inter hailed him as the finest young talent to come through since Ronaldo. Having moved to Real Madrid, following compatriot Luka Modric, he would appear regularly under Rafael Benitez, before his appearances started petering out with the arrival of Zinedine Zidane. Although he has three Champions Leagues, a La Liga and a Supercopa to his name, he was never an instrumental part of the squad.
Kovacic is not as physical as midfielders of yore. However, he makes up for the lack of physicality with his technical brilliance, his dribbling elegance and passing range. His main strengths lie in coming deep to get the ball and driving forward into the final third. He presses the opposition, he is swift and agile, can play in tight spaces and is not afraid to receive the ball. His passing range is exquisite, with his long balls and through balls a dream for any seasoned forward.
However, he had never found a proper home to utilize his talents appropriately. His loan spell at Chelsea proved to be a blessing in disguise for the player and club alike. Although he was played in a rigid role under Sarri, his talent/potential were clear for all to see. Under Frank Lampard, he has really started to blossom. He began the 2019/20 season as part of a double pivot under Frank Lampard, owing to Kante’s injury. Playing regularly since last season has helped him enormously after barren stretches at Real Madrid. He has adapted well to the league.
He can play as a midfield metronome, a la Jorginho, as well as a ball carrier from deep. Frank Lampard has had a positive effect on the player, as a scoring midfielder himself. Kovacic is getting into more advanced positions this season, free from the shackles and lower tempo under Sarri. He now has the freedom of a wider range of options – pass long, carry the ball through the midfield, arrive late in the box. At Chelsea he has become one of the most press resistant players in the league, if not the world.
It is hard to pick one favorite moment for a player that exudes such elegance. His mazy runs through the midfield have become a regular sight this season. In some ways, it reminds one of a certain Hazard. One of such moments which springs to mind is the pre-assist against Crystal Palace at home. Receiving the ball in the left wing, Kovacic drives past three players and slips the ball to Willian, who in turn sets up Tammy Abraham through to goal. The move really highlights Kovacic’s strengths as a player – his ability to play in tight spaces, his vision and his dribbling. Against teams playing a low block, as Crystal Palace did, this is a welcome weapon in our armory.
Another moment which comes to mind is his lofted through ball to Willian against Valencia. Kovacic takes 5-6 players out of the equation with a lovely pinpoint ball into the path of onrushing Willian. Unfortunately, Willian skies the shot on that occasion. His best assist, though, came against Manchester City. Kovacic pings a similar lofted ball to Kante rushing through the centre of City defence, finding him with an inch perfect, line splitting pass. This time, however, Kante manages to find the back of the net with an incredibly placed finish. Two world class players, with a lack of numbers, combined to create a special goal away to defending champions Manchester City.
Kovacic has been one of the best in the league this season in terms of Ball carries per 90, at 28.7, close second behind league leader Fernandinho. His defending ability is criminally underrated as well, seeing as he stands third behind Azpilicueta and Jorginho in number of tackles made this season by Chelsea players. Yes, ahead of Kante and any of our Center-backs. His passing accuracy stands at 89.6%, the best at the club.
Despite these good numbers, one negative that refuses to be forgotten is the lack of an end-product. While this may be attributed to dropping deeper, this should be no excuse for a player of his calibre. Kovacic has just two goals and three assists in the League and Europe combined. His game may certainly be easy on the eye, but he needs to post more numbers if he is to elevate himself to an elite level. Given the number of through balls and dribbles he attempts, it is not an unfair ask either.
Chelsea’s frontline is filled with young players who like to run in behind the lines – Pulisic, Mount, Abraham – each playing their first season at the club. They are well-equipped to play to the strengths of our midfield and our system. As they gain experience, it should not be long before Kovacic’s trademark splitting passes find a mature forward in Abraham, Mount or Pulisic to bury those chances. If he can find that creative spark and add to his numbers, Kovacic could be the quintessential new age midfielder.
Edited by: Dan