There is a strange dynamic to transfers between top level clubs. There is a feeling that either the selling club is making a mistake and not understanding the quality of the player they have, like when Bayern Munich signed Thiago Alcantara from Barcelona. Alternatively, the buying club is simply a level below the selling club, thereby meaning players who are surplus to requirements in one area could be useful in a new home. Take Arsenal’s acquiring of Willian from Chelsea, for example. Whilst not technically a sale, the principle was still in play. When Chelsea initially got Mateo Kovacic on loan from Real Madrid, it seemed like both of these were true.
The Croatian was undoubtedly surplus to requirements at Real Madrid, as the Spanish club had arguably the greatest midfield trio in the world at the time. Casemiro played behind Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, and this engine room had just won Real the Spanish title and fired them to three consecutive Champions Leagues. However, everyone in the Spanish capital had high hopes for Kovacic. He still played a lot of matches for the club. In each season he was in Spain, he played over 30 times in all competitions, with over 20 starts in each of his last two seasons. Unfortunately for him though, in the most important games, Kovacic would rarely start. This led to a general feeling that if he wanted to truly kick on in his career, he would have to go elsewhere.
Therefore, the Blues thought they could capitalise on this situation. There were potential parallels to Bayern’s capture of Thiago, another hugely admired player who was simply unlucky to be behind two of the greatest midfielders of all time in the pecking order. In a new environment, with added responsibility, they could no doubt begin to thrive. Whilst this proved true for Thiago, Kovacic has been disappointing at Stamford Bridge this season.
There’s an old cliche in football which is that being versatile can hold a player back as it can prevent a player from specialising in a role. Whilst Kovacic isn’t exactly versatile, what is true is that throughout his career, it has been hard to class exactly what kind of midfielder he is.
Throughout his career, he has been used in a variety of roles, but he has yet to fully establish prove himself in any of them. In 332 matches since his move to Inter Milan, Kovacic has scored 10 goals and produced 24 assists. Therefore, he scores a goal roughly once every 33 games and provides an assist every 13 games. This is an astonishingly low return, even N’Golo Kante averages a goal every 19 matches. He certainly isn’t productive, but this wouldn’t matter if he provided other things to the team.
What does he do? Well, he can’t dictate the play like the best central midfielders; this is because his passing range is above average, but not exceptional. He can switch the play better than someone like Jorginho, but he doesn’t punch passes through midfield like Thiago or play sensational long balls like Kevin De Bruyne. He simply isn’t the type of player who gets the ball down and runs the show. This could be forgiven, though, if he added real defensive solidity to the side. This is by far the worst part of his game though.
Two of his worst performances this season came away to Arsenal and at home against Manchester City. In both games, he left Chelsea’s right back completely isolated with his lazy tracking leading to Reece James being dominated by a combination of Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka, and then Cesar Azpilicueta being torn apart by Phil Foden. These dire performances came with Kante stoically trying to help out behind him, but then in Chelsea’s most recent game against Leicester, the Frenchman missed out due to injury. This meant Kovacic, for some bizarre reason, was chosen to play deep with only Mason Mount to help out.
The result was a virtually non existent midfield which Leicester could play through with complete ease. Kovacic could often be seen walking around aimlessly, like when James Maddison was afforded all the time in the world to shoot from the edge of the box and saw his effort bounce off the crossbar. Mount had to go through an extraordinary amount of effort to keep Chelsea competitive. Mount made seven tackles, four blocks, four interceptions and 24 attempted pressures. Kovacic made six tackles, zero blocks, zero interceptions and attempted 13 pressures on the day. Chelsea fans could only wistfully watch Wilfred Ndidi dominating the middle and think how much of a difference he could make to the side.
Kovacic doesn’t score or create goals, doesn’t dictate the tempo of a game and also doesn’t defend. Does he do anything? Well, he is an elite dribbler of the ball. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he may be the best in the world at dribbling the ball through a midfield when starting from a deep. This means he is exceptionally press resistant, and in certain games when there are spaces in midfield, he can be a really useful asset. For example, away to Watford last season, Kovacic seemed to be a force of nature driving through the midfield at will. Performances like this led to him being named Chelsea’s Player of the Year, but this was a fan vote and in reality, Kovacic only played 60 percent of the minutes in the Premier League last season and didn’t start 15 games. So those who think this award alone shows that he is great are placing too much emphasis on it—he didn’t have the effect that many seem to think he did.
Overall, this one skill alone is not enough. It would be brilliant if it were combined with a variety of other abilities, but it isn’t. The reality is that Kovacic is exceptionally limited. Chelsea desperately need midfielders who can add solidity and balance to the midfield, Ndidi or Declan Rice would be perfect, and Kovacic should be sold to make this happen.