This summer Chelsea made the only signing we could make, 72 hours before the transfer ban kicked in. The Blues agreed to make Kovačić’s loan a permanent deal on June 27, three days before the midfielder’s registration was set to revert back to Real Madrid. The Croatian midfielder had always been a promising talent, with good dribbling technique and plenty of spunk, both in his tackles and energy. Though he showed glimpses, his initial loan spell came with mixed reviews.
The rigidity of Sarri worked to unlock different skillsets in some players — like N’Golo Kanté, who was able to build on and showcase his dribbling skill, ability to find space in the third, and shooting — but a struggle for others. Mateo Kovačić was often tasked with replicating a completely different style of player in Marek Hamšík, the left central midfielder who was key to attacking moves down Sarri’s favored left flank.
N’Golo Kanté posted the best goal and assist numbers of his career — scoring some absolute crackers — while Kovačić managed zero goals and just two assists in the league. The player he was often trying to emulate, Hamšík, frequently posted double digit goal or assist numbers under Sarri, and in his best season under the Italian’s instruction, posted double digits in both categories.
With Lampard at the helm, Kovačić is now being used in a more natural position, and given tasks much better suited to his best attributes. His quick feet and inventiveness give him the confidence and ability to pop the ball into space and be the first to it. This skill makes him hard to mark in spacious areas of the pitch, and makes him a devastating tool to deploy against a high press.
“Kovačić, his ability to play – him and Jorgi together – and then that ability to drive from midfield, that’s not the norm. As a midfield player it’s your worst nightmare having a player who can play and then drive by you out of nowhere.”
“He was doing that today to great effect. Really pleased with him.”
–Frank Lampard; source: Metro UK
Since Lampard settled on the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovačić, just about every match has featured at least one of his signature dribbles that spring him into midfield from his own half. Under Sarri, he averaged just 1.3 successful dribbles per game; so far under Lampard that is up to 2.4, which is a not-insignificant jump. In fact, for the entire season so far Kovačić has 26 successful dribbles, which is far and away the most of any Chelsea player. Willian, at 16, is a speck in his rear-view mirror. Kovačić’s had a total of 42 successful dribbles in the league in 2018/19, a number he’s set to pass before Christmas (source: WhoScored).
Though Kovačić has a slightly comical technique that often forces his arms to flail far from his body as if he’s in the initial stage of falling down a flight of stairs, he has excellent balance and is able to keep the ball close enough to either avoid being tackled, or draw fouls (he is our second most fouled player, just one whistle behind Willian).
This type of midfielder player is rare and, in this era of modern football, only growing in importance. Statsbomb’s Grace Robertson wrote a piece on such midfielders, straightforwardly titled The Rise of Press-Resistant Midfielders. Beating a high press is hard, and losing the ball that close to your own goal is obviously catastrophic. To overcome a good press, teams can either punt the ball long (the worst option); be so good at pressing that they’re rarely pressed themselves (a good option but very rare and your players’ ligaments may, at times, beg to differ); develop extremely refined movement off the ball and quick precision passing between defenders, fullbacks and midfielder (stunning when it comes off but very hard to accomplish); or Kovačić as potentially one such midfielder (a great option, also the rarest).
Of course plenty of teams, like Lampard’s Chelsea, use a combination of these options to decent effect.
Grace spotlighted how, under Sarri, Jorginho was frequently pressed out of matches, often by just one player. It then became necessary for Kanté and Kovačić to break from Sarri’s preferred structure and play closer to Jorginho, which helped the Blues control more of midfield but often led to a stagnant attack. The Italian’s signature passing triangles no longer existed, which slowed the team down and afforded defenses the luxury of keeping everyone in front of them.
But Lampard has found the best use of the former Real Madrid spare part, who has also been instrumental in allowing the team to get the best out of Jorginho as well, as the two complement one another well. When he doesn’t have the width of the pitch to cover by himself, Jorginho can be an effective ball-stopping/-winning DM while still getting to sit back, survey actions in front of him and pick passes (like he did for Tammy Abraham’s goal versus Watford, which was an incredible blend of technique and near clairvoyance — well, or training).
Lampard’s ability to recognize what his players are best at, and shape his system to allow them to do more of what those things are, is refreshing. It also sounds quite simple, and though it sort of is, there are a lot of jobs to do on a pitch, and it requires excellent team construction to get 11-18 players that can take care of them all and still complement one another. Lampard, however, has not yet had the luxury of signings to make this happen, and instead is proving flexible enough to make the team as cohesive as possible (and it should be noted, without Chelsea’s best player and best defender).
Thankfully Chelsea’s higher-ups got Mateo signed; not only has he been necessary as a result of N’Golo Kanté’s injury woes, but his dribbling ability gives the team a dimension that few have, and even fewer can cope with.