The biggest regret to this date among Chelsea fans is letting the likes of Mohamed Salah, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne leave the club. Though each one probably made sense for the club at the time in terms of a footballing and business decision, the sheer pain that runs through Chelsea fans’ veins when they see the likes of Salah and De Bruyne being nominated for top individual honours says it all. You can’t make amends for your past actions but learning from yesterday’s mistakes to make tomorrow’s decisions more informed is what the beautiful game and life in general is all about. Having arrived to Stamford Bridge from Real Madrid from 2018 at the back of an inspiring World Cup run with Croatia, Kovacic adjusted to life in London pretty quickly.
Having had mixed spells at Inter Milan and Real Madrid, the then 24-year old had a point to prove when he joined for Chelsea; not to Inter, not to Real, but to himself. Though he formed an integral part of a midfield three alongside Luka Modric in Russia, there were still doubts cast over Kovacic and if he could do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke or not. This is where the De Bruyne parallel is introduced. Six and a half years ago, a Chelsea ‘reject’ joined Wolfsburg for 18 million pounds and emerged as German Player of the Year 2014/15. He signed for Manchester City in July 2015 and the rest is history. Had Chelsea shown that teeny bit of patience with a young, talented player who was arguably not given his fair share of opportunities while at the club, it would’ve been some story. Since his arrival to north London, Kovacic has been nothing short of a revelation and is arguably the most underrated player in England.
His style of play is unique in a sense that he finds almost the perfect balance between attack and defence. He is predominantly a central midfielder who best operates as part of a three. Despite being right-footed, he is perhaps most effective when operating from an advanced role on the left of that three, supported by a single lone pivot or a double pivot when the opposition are looking to counter-attack. The silky Croat’s passing and movements within the inside left channel help him combine especially well with both lone strikers and attacking wide players.
Like many of his international teammates, Kovacic possesses a brilliant work ethic. Despite his attacking instincts, he is as effective during defensive transitions; he is not slow in making recovery runs and capable of bold, last-ditch tackles that, though not without an element of risk, often rescue his team in dangerous situations. When in possession, he is a tidy player who is comfortable in tight areas. Small, disguised flicks away from danger are a trademark move of his, bringing that delightful Hazard-esque element to his game. He is more than comfortable in dribbling his way out of pressure, particularly when pressed within the final third of the pitch. His acceleration over a short distance, coupled with a reliable touch, helps him evade defenders when necessary. it is evident that Kovacic enjoys doing most of his work down the left-wing and left half-space, in sort of the middle of the number eight and number six position. This is indicative of his playing style, which is extremely effective in transitional phases of play and beginning attacking phases.
His touch is very tidy and he can help his way out of trouble with a cute dribble every now and then. A core aspect of his game is how he goes deep to retract the ball from central defenders and by finding players at various positions, becomes the chief architect in midfield. Having played alongside N’Golo Kante or Jorginho for a large part of his Chelsea career, he is given the license to not necessarily ‘roam’ around, but to follow his natural instincts, which is a key element of a game for a player with his raw ability. The way he sees and reads the game, how he understands whether he should hold the ball or play it forward, his overall intelligence is central to how Chelsea do and will continue to play with Kovacic now set to combine with the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz in front of him.
Kovacic’s role and effectiveness can be slightly overlooked in a team flooded with generational attacking talent, but one only needs to closely analyze the midfield pivot from the Brighton game on opening day where Chelsea lacked that leadership, solidarity in midfield and the duo in midfield were hesitating to collect the ball from center-halves and setting attacking plays in motion. Brighton’s midfield easily played through Chelsea’s and that is something Kovacic wouldn’t allow on his watch. That is what Kovacic brings to Chelsea. On the reverse side, although De Bruyne’s positional play at City has matured over the years from a rather deep-lying midfielder to almost a number ten at times, early doors through his City career, he played a similar role in a City side. Running those yards deep into midfield, DEMANDING the ball from the defence and giving the team a richness of options to try and hurt the opposition proved to the foundation of De Bruyne’s game, as it went from strength to strength from playing under Manuel Pellegrini to Pep Guardiola.
Having shared a dressing room with serial winners such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, Kovacic is no stranger to the commitment and sheer hard work it takes to strive for the biggest prizes in the game. In a seemingly young squad, the likes of Kovacic and Thiago Silva can bring that winning mentality that the club desperately requires when facing the top dogs. The confidence boost that he can provide to someone like Mason Mount or even Tammy Abraham, who will be entering unfamiliar territory if Chelsea do make it to the latter stages of the Champions League, can go miles!
Though Kovacic may not possess the shooting or crossing ability that De Bruyne does, his role in the Chelsea side doesn’t necessarily involve him performing either of those tasks. During set-piece situations, he is often the last man back for Chelsea; assigned to try and stop the opposition from possibly countering by virtue of his ability to read players’ movements. He doesn’t quite fit the profile of player who you’d want to be sort of a menace around the box to try and nick the odd goal. He is not the player who Chelsea fans wish would represent their club in Fantasy Premier League, but everything that Chelsea do goes through Kovacic and while he may not make the front-page headlines every weekend, he is indispensable for this Chelsea side and at 26 years old, he is getting to his prime and as his game evolves, he can be Chelsea’s own De Bruyne, one whom they actually trusted to showcase his talent.