A MATEO KOVACIC APPRECIATION PIECE
Whether you’re upset that Game of Thrones didn’t end the way it should’ve or you’re a confused TV fanatic like me who lost interest in the show due to the number of spoilers you received, it’s clear that Bran Stark eventually rules King’s Landing. The hard truth is, it’s a fictitious world in a fictitious show. Sorry to burst your bubble. The reality is that most of those beautiful kingdom shots come from the picturesque land of Croatia- a country home to one of the most gifted midfielders in the Premier League today: Mateo Kovacic.
I’m a sucker for anything Kovacic does on the pitch. There, I said it. The man could make a tackle on a muddy pitch look balletic. Arguably the best dribbler at the club since Eden Hazard left for the team Kova used to represent, the Croat knows how to dance with the ball at his feet. His nifty footwork as well as how he orchestrates the build-up make me drool.
You can understand them sending the likes of Dani Ceballos and even Martin Ødegaard on loan but letting go of Kovacic, a man who would be the shining light of that Real Madrid midfield for years to come is blasphemous.
As a Chelsea fan, I feel like I have the honour to watch someone with Kovacic’s unique gift operate at my beloved club. Given the nickname, Il Professore (The Professor) by Italian journalists during his growth at Inter, the man has blessed our team across the midfield.
In all honesty, his arrival to Chelsea is like the right amount of cream and sugar in your coffee. The £40 million man may not be the most press-popular athlete out there, but he is without a doubt extremely vital to being a supreme ball carrier as well as dictating the tempo of the game from the middle of the park. And his versatility is just second to none.
Not many people tend to notice this but if you’re giving N’Golo Kante, one of the best defensive midfielders in the modern era a hard time to get a place in the starting eleven, then you’re clearly doing something right. And right it is. The 26-year-old’s ability to burst forward and control games, even from that deep-lying role has left fans gasping in awe. Of all the 1246 islands in Croatia, there is surely one reserved for the players he has jinked past. If you haven’t caught my drift, Kova is going to leave you for dead.
It must help being educated under midfield maestros such as the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Esteban Cambiasso and the more you watch the silky Croat in action, the more you notice all their traits in him.
Where some foreign footballers require weeks, months or even years to adjust to the frenetic pace of England’s top-flight, the ex-Zagreb player immediately dispelled any fears that he would necessitate a protracted period of adaptation. To be fair, familiarizing yourself with Sarri-ball isn’t the easiest task but when you’ve mastered the Spanish pausa and learned how to graft in Italy against pitbulls in midfield, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kovacic looked like he’d been playing in England for years ever since he touched down in Cobham.
Initially being constantly swapped with Ross Barkley under Sarri, the World Cup finalist has come a long way since his loan spell became permanent. Although he had a few injury setbacks during the 2019-20 season, the midfielder was one of the very few foreign players who thrived under Frank Lampard’s time as manager, to the point where he won Chelsea’s Player of The Year.
Criticism about his performances after the transfer ban quickly diminished with his quality being used in more of a holding role under Lampard. He suited Frank’s 4-3-3 system and played a more deeper midfield role to let Mount get into the box while he stuck closer to his midfield partner. With the consequences we faced that summer, it was exciting to see someone step up and take charge in mastering their assigned role.
Fast forward to the Champions League game in midweek. The Croat looks to be playing a freer role under Thomas Tuchel who seems to be a big fan of his smooth operator in midfield.
“You can wake the guy up at 3 AM and he will be at Cobham at 3:15 ready to give everything, listen and play with full energy”.
While the unbeaten run may have ended, he surely was not as he put on almost flawless performance against Porto in the Champions League.
86 touches, 100% dribble success, 3 ground duels won, Kova was class all evening.
During corners, he was the last man to hold the defensive line. And during defensive substitutions, you could see the 26-year old joining the attack and making things happen in the final third. Positionally, he doesn’t leave a lot to be desired as he is never caught out too further up the pitch or operating from way too deep. Right place, right time.
And he’s frighteningly consistent. Sure, he lost the ball a couple of times against West Brom but there were times when he was unplayable in the 2nd half. Driving past the opposition midfield, finding passes that you can’t even imagine and dribbling past players for fun. In what was, make no mistake, an absolute battering, Kova was easily Chelsea’s standout player and this isn’t an isolated incident.
Another example is the 2-1 defeat to Man City in 2019. The Sky Blues outplayed us but Kovacic’s contribution during the encounter against City at the Etihad in 2019 was a personal favourite of mine. That assist to Kante left the blue side of Manchester silent in that first quarter of the game. To go toe-to-toe with a midfield that has the likes of De Bruyne and Silva and be able to match them shows what a special footballer he is.
Even Pep was speechless in the post-match interview. “It’s Chelsea”, he said. The admiration for a worthy opponent should ideally have stemmed from one man making sure it was a level-playing field for at least the initial 25 minutes of the contest.
The masterclass in that away victory against Spurs under Lampard, the excellence he showed in middle of the park against United in the FA Cup semi-final, there are too many elite displays to choose from.
At Chelsea, he truly does complete the puzzle. Yes, there are qualities in Kova that can surely improve. Aerial duels, his goal and assist contributions and more frequent key passes in the final third would truly make him a more complete midfielder. For the few things you may consider wrong about his game, there is also so much right. I could go on and on but you get the gist of things.
Spoiler Alert: I love Mateo Kovacic. And while Luka Modric may be the King of Croatian football, if it’s anything like Game of Thrones, a young prince in Mateo Kovacic can rule the land.