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Mateo Kovacic

Real Madrid to Chelsea, Loan

Midfielder 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. He 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 the mighty Real Madrid when still only 17 years old. It was no surprise when one of the big boys came calling and, in January 2013, after winning consecutive domestic doubles with Dinamo, he moved to Inter Milan in a deal worth €15m.

In two and a half years with the Italian giants, the young Croatian international endured mixed fortunes. He had been mostly used on the left side of an attacking midfield three at Dinamo, but under new 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 Madrid in the summer of 2015, with Inter and latest manager Roberto Mancini forced into a sale to satisfy financial fair play rules.

Despite being used in a number of roles by initial Madrid boss 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 immoveable objects such as Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite the latter’s departure for Juventus this summer, Kovacic still sought a move away from the Bernabeu, with a one-year loan deal to Chelsea secured before the transfer deadline. He made his first competitive appearance for the west London club off the bench in a 3-2 home victory over Arsenal.

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 24-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 is 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. He will definitely need to improve in this area under Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri – the former Napoli boss prioritises quick and incisive passing combinations through midfield.

Role at new club
It is anticipated that Kovacic will form part of Sarri’s three-man central midfield unit. Should Eden Hazard remain at the club, as seems increasingly likely, then the Belgian is likely to be the focal point of attack along Chelsea’s left side. That would leave the young Croat to battle the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley for an advanced midfield role alongside the newly liberated N’Golo Kante, and in front of fellow new arrival Jorginho.

Should Sarri decide to move Hazard into a central attacking role, as Antonio Conte did briefly last season, then an attacking left-midfield space could become vacant for Kovacic. In this scenario, Kante and Jorginho would likely act as a double pivot at the base of the midfield – although this is not a formation Chelsea fans should expect too often from their new head coach.

As mentioned above, Sarri’s preference for quick, incisive passing through midfield areas will require Kovacic to adapt his previously more measured style somewhat. This may involve an adjustment of body shape when receiving, in order to then play passes more effectively, while the number and timing of his forward runs may also need work. The manager’s preference for a lone central striker puts more emphasis on goals from central midfield areas, so Kovacic will be expected to penetrate the last line of any opposition defence more often than in his career to date. Four of Chelsea’s six Premier League goals so far this season have come from midfield (and one of the other two from defender Marcos Alonso) – if Kovacic wants to earn himself a regular starting spot, regular contributions in front of goal would do his cause no harm at all.

Mateo Kovacic

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