Mateo Kovačić’s transfer from Real Madrid to Chelsea in June, following a year on loan, was met with some scrutiny due to an inconsistent first season from the midfielder, who seemed incapable of regularly completing 90 minutes at Premier League pace, despite being restricted to a large degree by Sarri's rigid passing system.
Kovačić’s bottomless pit of talent on the ball was evident only in patches, most notably against Arsenal in the Europa League final last season. But, thanks in part due to the transfer ban, the club deemed it necessary to spend £45m on him.
So far this season, Kovačić has managed to make that sum look a bargain, as he has been one of the standout players at Chelsea and also one of the most in-form midfielders in the world.
He credits Chelsea’s new style of play for his impressive performances.
“My game is to open spaces for other people. It’s a big strength and I have felt I am trying it a lot more because we play a little bit different football to last year. Now we are more direct, more aggressive, we just try things we didn’t try last year. I feel better.
“I think my best position is in a midfield two. I can play as well in a midfield three, but in the two I feel maybe more comfortable with more freedom. But in the end the formation doesn’t matter too much.”
Having been asked to play a number of roles throughout his career, Kovačić, in a way, became the victim of his own versatility. He was never able to settle down either in terms of playing time or position. He has now finally found that stability at Chelsea, and he’s been able to become comfortable in a specific role that’s best-suited to his skillset.
“Of course it’s better to have consistency in your position. To move around the pitch is not so good, when you’re playing one year there, and another year there.
“That has also been a bit of a problem in my career. Everything happened too fast for me. I had three great and difficult years in Madrid. I played, didn’t play, I didn’t get the continuity that I needed and what I have now here. I enjoyed it, we won three Champions Leagues, but Chelsea is coming in the best moment of my career. It has been the most important switch for now and I’m really pleased with that.”
A common theme regarding Kovačić’s performances over the past few years has been the swashbuckling style of play on the ball — often similar enough to Eden Hazard’s dribbling style and successes to confuse many an observer — but without much of any end-product on the stats sheet.
Under Lampard, the greatest goalscoring midfielder in football history, Kovačić has been expected to take that step to becoming the complete midfielder. So far he hasn’t been able to show much on that aspect, and he’s still looking for his first goal in three years. But there’s hope that Kovačić’s final form as a goalscoring midfielder might not remain a pipe dream for much longer.
“The most important is the first one. One year at Inter I scored a lot of goals because I started the season scoring a lot of goals. Then you continue and it goes along. I never had the pressure to score goals, I was never obsessed because my game is not about goals, but obviously if I want to go to the next step I need to improve it.
“The coach was the greatest goalscoring midfielder that ever played. There were many, but he really scored a lot of goals. He tells me always that I need to shoot. Now I am trying more!
“It’s just a thing of mentality, to try to score, to be aggressive and to have the hunger to score goals. I want to improve that, I’m trying to improve that and I am sure I will get there.”
- Mateo Kovačić; source: Chelsea FC
Onwards and upwards!