Are we finally seeing the Mateo Kovacic that Chelsea was promised?

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea and Teemu Pukki of Norwich City during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Norwich City at Stamford Bridge on October 23, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea and Teemu Pukki of Norwich City during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Norwich City at Stamford Bridge on October 23, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images) /

The 2018/19 season began with a bang when Chelsea made a handful of big money moves to help rebuild Maurizio Sarri’s squad. Jorginho was the first through the door as the midfield maestro was seen as crucial to how the newly appointed manager wanted to play. Trouble in paradise with Thibaut Courtois then meant the Blues had to make costly changes at the goalkeeper position. Courtois forced the club’s hand and orchestrated a move to Real Madrid. While Chelsea didn’t get anywhere near his full worth in pounds, it did get back an intriguing piece in Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic. The Blues’ two additions in the middle of the park saw their stock rise following an underwhelming season. They now had one of the best midfield trios (Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Kovacic) in English football.

It turns out the trio was a bit underwhelming during the Sarri era. They often lined up together with Kante and Kovacic more advanced than Jorginho. The duo was relatively inexperienced charging forward and neither possessed any real end product. Chelsea was able to dominate the midfield, enough to win the Europa League, but the forwards were essentially on an island. Despite the early struggles, the Blues made Kovacic’s move permanent the following summer and he’s continued to develop every year. The 27-year-old has gotten off to a flying start this season and it seems as if Chelsea finally has the player it was once promised on its hands.

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The Blues’ midfield has often faced the difficult problem of too many cooks in the kitchen in recent years. Sarri’s departure essentially marked the death of the aforementioned trio. Frank Lampard utilized it every so often, but Mason Mount’s meteoric rise meant the youngster was often taking the place of another. The odd man out was usually a bout between Jorginho and Kovacic. Tuchel’s arrival and subsequent establishing of a pivot saw even more rotation than before. Kovacic was one of Chelsea’s most important players during its Champions League-winning run last season. Even then, he hadn’t quite established himself in the regular starting XI, his role was to essentially step up in the absence of Jorginho or Kante during the knockout stages. The Croatian performed his duties perfectly, but it made many wonder what he’d have to do to get a run in the Blues’ starting XI regularly. It now seems supporters have the answer to that question.

Chelsea is finally getting to see the player it paid £35 million for back in 2019. This isn’t to say Kovacic has been disappointing either. He’s won a Chelsea Player of the Year award and numerous team trophies during that span. However, he’s now transitioning into a world class, versatile midfielder. Tuchel is facing the difficult task of keeping Kante healthy through an entire campaign and managing Jorginho’s minutes to avoid fatigue, Kovacic is making this challenge significantly easier. In fact, he may force his way into the starting XI regardless.

Kovacic is—aside from Edouard Mendy—probably Chelsea’s player of the season thus far. He’s one of the Blues’ 17 different goalscorers after netting a rare goal against Aston Villa. Kovacic has also tallied five assists already, the most he’s personally had since his 2014/15 season at Inter Milan. One would think by these stats that he’s playing a more advanced role, but this is hardly the case. Kovacic is playing in the same role he did last season, he’s just broken out of the mental shackles holding him back in years past. The addition of an adept No. 9 into the Blues’ line-up has undoubtedly helped with these improvements. It’s become obvious that Romelu Lukaku and Kovacic have a natural connection in the way they play off one another. This will only get stronger with time as the duo plays together more often.

The fascinating part of these positive strides taken by Kovacic is the fact he hasn’t had to sacrifice any other attributes he possesses in the process. He’s still holding onto the ball when under intense pressure really well, distributing the ball effectively and frequently dribbling with a high success rate. Kovacic’s defensive recoveries and tackles look sharper than ever, as well. This should be worrying to opponents as he’s already considered by many to be Chelsea’s second best tackler, only behind Kante, who is regarded as the best defensive midfielder in world football.

For Kovacic, the sky is the limit this season. Teams like Real Madrid and Inter Milan failed to realize his potential and, for lack of a better term, tossed him aside. This potential is finally being realized by the individual himself as Chelsea has provided him with a long-term home. Kovacic, still in the prime years for footballers, has a long career ahead of him. If the Blues can continue to develop the four-time Champions League winner, he can undoubtedly become one of the world’s best box-to-box midfielders for the foreseeable future.

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What have you made of Kovacic’s play so far this season? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!