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Mateo Kovacic

Real Madrid to Chelsea, £40m

Mateo Kovacic was originally born in Austria, but he moved to Croatia in his childhood and joined the Dinamo Zagreb youth academy despite interest from bigger clubs across Europe. The midfielder battled through a potentially career-ending leg injury to eventually make his first-team debut at 16 – a game in which he also became the youngest ever goalscorer in the top Croatian league. His breakthrough season for Dinamo ended in an impressive domestic league-and-cup double.

Over the next two seasons Kovacic firmly established himself as an emerging talent. He helped Dinamo reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League in 2011/12, starting in a 1-0 home defeat by Real Madrid when still only 17 years old. It was no surprise when interest in him grew and, in January 2013, after winning consecutive domestic doubles with Dinamo, he moved to Inter Milan for €15m.

In two and a half years with the Italian giants, the young Croatia international endured mixed fortunes. He had been mostly used on the left side of an attacking midfield three at Dinamo, but under one-time Inter head coach Walter Mazzarri he was employed in a more central, box-to-box role that affected both his and the team’s form. He nevertheless secured a move to Real in the summer of 2015, with Inter and their then-manager Roberto Mancini forced into a sale to satisfy financial fair play rules.

Despite being used in a number of roles at Real by Rafa Benitez, Kovacic’s opportunities in the first team became less frequent after the arrival of Zinedine Zidane as head coach. This was less about the inherent qualities of a player still in his early 20s, however, and more about Zidane’s preference for a consistent starting XI featuring indispensable figures such as Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. Kovacic sought a move away from the Bernabeu, joining Chelsea, then managed by Maurizio Sarri, on a one-year loan deal, before his recent permanent transfer for £40m.

Tactical analysis
Kovacic 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. The 25-year-old’s passing and movements within the inside left channel (above) help him create chances for his teammates, as he combines especially well with both lone strikers and attacking wide players.

Like many of his international teammates, Kovacic possesses a superb work ethic. Despite his attacking instincts he is 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, can often rescue his team in dangerous situations (below).

When in possession, he is a tidy player who is comfortable in tight areas. Small, disguised flicks away from danger are a trademark move, but he can also dribble 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 as and when necessary.

There are weaknesses to Kovacic’s game, however. He is not as competitive in the air as someone with his athletic build possibly should be, and he is still prone to holding on to the ball for too long in midfield (below), when no suitable forward passing options are obvious.

Role this season
Kovacic consistently formed part of Sarri’s three-man central midfield. But Eden Hazard’s departure to Real Madrid leaves a vacancy as the focal point of attack along Chelsea’s left side, after the young Croat spent last season competing with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley for an advanced midfield role alongside N’Golo Kante, and in front of Jorginho.

Should Kovacic gradually be given an attacking midfield space under their new manager Frank Lampard, Kante and Jorginho could yet act as a double pivot at the base of midfield in a way that, unlike under Sarri, maximises both of their strengths. In the event of Lampard retaining his 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 structures Jorginho would likely be sacrificed to use Kante as the single pivot, and Kovacic would then drop during build-ups to assist Kante.

Mateo Kovacic

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