Is there a more confusing footballer in the world right now than Mateo Kovacic?
The midfielder’s last 100 games, in which he’s represented Croatia, Real Madrid and Chelsea, have seen him take to the pitch in the semi-finals of the World Cup and Champions League.
Kovacic’s trophy haul includes two Croatian league titles, two Croatian Cups, La Liga, the Spanish Super Cup, three Champions Leagues, two UEFA Super Cups and two FIFA Club World Cups.
At the age of 24 he’s just one cap short of his 50th appearance for Croatia, having first been called up as an 18-year-old.
Kovacic’s footballing CV also includes making his debut for Dinamo Zagreb- Croatia’s most successful club- at the age of 16, and spending three seasons in Serie A with Inter Milan, where Javier Zanetti was so taken by his talents that he lauded him as the best young talent he’d seen at the club, with the exception of Ronaldo.
When presented with all that information, what’s the cause for confusion?
Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Spurs, in which Kovacic admittedly impressed, was the Croatian’s 100th consecutive game without finding the back of the net for club or country.
You have to go back to 2 November 2016 to find the last time Kovacic scored. On that night his goal rescued a point for Real Madrid in a 3-3 Champions League draw against Legia Warsaw.
For all the showpiece events Kovacic has been a part of since- including bench duties in the World Cup and League Cup finals- there are still questions about what the 24-year-old actually does.
At Dinamo, Kovacic was seen as the next great Croatian no.10, following in the footsteps of Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban.
Following a move highly-anticipated move to Italy, Inter boss Andrea Stramaccioni shoehorned him into a deeper role in which he was expected to dictate the tempo amidst the rigid, tactical chess game that is Serie A.
At Madrid and Chelsea he’s found something of a middle ground, often asked to play as one-third of a midfield trio. In theory, the box-to-box role suits his desire to pick up the ball and drive into the final third.
The composition of Chelsea’s midfield, in which Jorginho always sits at the base as the first receiver and N’Golo Kante buzzes up and down the right, should give Kovacic license to express himself.
But 24 Premier League appearances for Chelsea, 17 of which have come from the start, have only yielded two assists.
Of that trio, Kovacic has the lowest stats for tackling, interceptions, goals, average passes per game. He’s got the highest numbers for pass success percentage and dribbles per game.
His energy ensures he’s never seen as slacking by Chelsea fans. In that sense he’s Mesut Ozil in reverse. But there’s undoubtedly a feeling amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful that he’s taking up a position in which Ruben Loftus-Cheek could blossom.
The Croatian’s technique is never lacking. He’s full of industry. He’s experienced the biggest games in football, and he’s still got plenty of time to grow as a player.
Yet there are serious questions over whether Chelsea will pay the fee, which could well top £50million, to make his loan move from Madrid permanent, transfer ban notwithstanding.
For now, the Kovacic conundrum remains unanswered.
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