One. The loneliest number. Also, a number that stood out perhaps more than any other number in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Hull City.
One: the number of “take-ons” attempted by Mateo Kovačić. Also, the number of “successful take-ons” by Mateo Kovačić. One of one. But highly uncharacteristic in terms of the total number.
After Callum Hudson-Odoi (about 6 per game) and Christian Pulisic (about 5 per game), Kovačić is third on the team in average attempts. His success rate of 71% is one of the best numbers in the entire Premier League among frequent dribblers. In fact, only Adama Traoré, John McGinn, Enda Stevens, Emi Buendía, Raúl Jiménez, and our very own Willian have a better success rate having attempted at least as many as Kovačić’s 56. (Traoré’s numbers are quite ridiculous, second most attempts at 147 with a 74% success rate, more than 10% better than the leader in total attempts, Wilfried Zaha.)
The lack of dribbling by Kovačić against Hull City was a direct result of Lampard’s tactical instructions (rather than, say, Hull City’s shifting marking/pressing approach), as the Chelsea head coach explained after the game.
“I think he can do both [attacking and defensive] roles. We changed the midfield around and rotated it in terms of how we’re playing — I never want it to be absolutely structured — and there’s games he’s played well as part of a two and he’s almost doing a bit of both roles. I think he can do it very well.”
There’s little question about Kovačić’s quality on the ball, which Lampard saw even while watching from afar last season. But the deeper role does expose certain limitations in his game, and that’s one of the things Lampard still wants the midfielder to work on.
There’s no prize for guessing what the other thing is: goals.
“I watched him last year and liked him from afar. It wasn’t the easiest year for him — sometimes he started, sometimes he didn’t — but I just saw an actual talent in the way he can take people out of the game in midfield and he travels really quickly with the ball and can play really nice combinations.
“But there are other parts of his game that we want to improve. We want to see him score more goals and when he’s in deep defensive areas, of course he has to be very aware to pick up runners and do that job as well.”
Fortunately, Kovačić is eager to learn — he’s already scored twice, which is just one shy of the last four seasons combined! — and we can ask for no better role model for him in that regard than the head coach himself.
“For the development of him, and we’ve got a really good relationship, he loves to talk about his game and he’s very intelligent, he listens when you speak to him, and I think he can get better at all parts of it. He’s very talented and I love working with him and I want to help him improve because he’s important to us.”
-Frank Lampard; source: Chelsea FC
At 25 years of age, Kovačić is only starting to enter his prime. And we’ll get to have front-row seats to it. It’s going to be fun.