Several years on from his Chelsea and Premier League debut, Mateo Kovacic is playing some of his best football to-date. The Croatian is proving why the £40 million spent on him last summer was a bargain. At 26-years old, he is still just getting started.
His sensational performance against Tottenham was one of the best individual midfield matches from a single player for quite some time. For me, it surpasses the dazzling display from Hakim Ziyech against Sheffield United. It also beats the stand out shot-stopping from Edouard Mendy against Manchester United. This was a game that had everything from Kovacic. It showed all his silky skills: press resistant dribbling, dogged off-the-ball energy and also intelligence to be in the right shape with his midfield partners.
Kovacic was rightly Chelsea’s Player of the Season last year. Did people really think there wasn’t going to be a role for him now?
Numbers don’t tell the full story
If we start by taking a look at the numbers surrounding his game it’s obvious to see the dynamic nature of Mateo Kovacic. His WhoScored rating shows that he is better when deployed further up the pitch in the 8 role, rather than in a pivot alongside N’Golo Kante or Jorginho.
He gets a 6.29 when in a pivot and 7.18 when more advanced on average. However, numbers don’t do his performance against Spurs justice. Kovacic was all over the pitch for the full 90 minutes. He was a huge part of not only why Chelsea kept the ball so well in the second half, but also why they were able to nullify the best-attacking duo in the league.
His rating of 7.45 was the highest of any Chelsea player and 2nd only to Tanguy Ndombele. Due to the low block of Mourinho’s side, it was hard for Kovacic to prove his worth going forward. But this isn’t why he is so unique. It’s his transitional play that makes him stand out from almost every other midfielder in the world.
Mateo Kovacic: Press Resistance
With only 1 completed dribble recorded against Spurs, it isn’t all down to the numbers. More crucially, the fact he wasn’t dispossessed either also shows his importance. In the transition between defence and attack, Chelsea have options. Slot a ball in between the pressing attackers to Mason Mount or a winger down the line, look for a ball up to Tammy Abraham or a third any startlingly unique option. Mateo Kovacic.
The Croat has such incredible ball retention that he is ‘press-resistant’. Often, the opposition are unable to pick the ball from him when pressing Chelsea high. Kovacic comes short to receive the ball after being in a defensive position and dribble his side up the pitch. This is an extremely underrated skill. It also means Kovacic can take players out of the game and stretch the opposition.
What he offers differently
In world football, there are very few players that fall under the press-resistant bracket, Thiago from Liverpool comes to mind, but he is yet to play any real amount of Premier League football. Luka Modric possesses a similar ability to seemingly bypass a press under the radar, and most importantly, with the ball. Andreas Iniesta is probably the best ever to do it – he managed to mix having the touch of a fairy with the most startling range of passing football has seen. Spurs have their own version, Ndombele is a super midfielder who uses his physique in a languid style to move the ball quickly in between his feet to glide past opponents.
Mateo Kovacic isn’t Iniesta but right now he might just be the best press resistant player in the game. This skill is being sought after by more managers as they look to combat the prevalence of pressing.
But Kovacic showed much more than just being able to use some fancy feet here and there against Spurs. His whole game was exquisite. There was a brilliant interchange with Kante and Mount to take out what little Spurs press there was. The Croat was also the first man to press for Chelsea in the middle third. He was tireless in tracking the runs of Harry Kane, Heung Min-Son and Steven Bergwijn. Most impressively, he recorded 4 tackles and 4 interceptions – the best on the pitch.
Mateo Kovacic: Ahead of the curve
As is becoming more common in modern teams, Chelsea had three midfielders who all like to occupy different areas. Kante was the lone DM, sitting deeper to snuff out danger and to provide an extra passing outlet. Mount was the high pressing midfield 8, a variation of a box-to-box midfielder. His inhuman stamina meant he was able to press and hassle, never allowing Spurs an easy counter-attacking option. Mateo Kovacic was the middleman. He picked apart any players that evaded Chelsea’s increasingly high second half-press and then had the natural dribbling ability to fluidly turn possession over and start an attack at the same time.
Some would argue that Mount does a similar role. The one stark difference for me is Mount simply doesn’t possess the dribbling skills to evade players like Kovacic. The Englishman relies on passing to move the ball, Kovacic offers the ability to progress the ball himself.
Lampard & Mateo Kovacic
It was very easy to get carried away at the start of the season and not see a role for Mateo Kovacic in this side. With the forward thinking, young, progressive minds and talents of Kai Havertz and Mount in midfield it made sense to sideline Kovacic, after all, nobody could really understand what he was.
But that’s been changed, he’s proven now with wins against Newcastle and Sheffield United that he is more than capable of playing as an 8 and not taking anything away from the side. Some will still doubt his attacking output, which is extremely poor for someone with his talent, but the reality is that it’s not what he’s all about.
An undefined position
Kovacic made his debut for Maurizio Sarri and struggled to make a real impact because Chelsea dominated the ball but weren’t fluid or dynamic enough to move the ball quickly and cause any danger. Therefore Kovacic would run into a brick wall every time he progressed the ball. However, with Lampard Chelsea have an unpredictable attacking line up now, meaning that Zieych, Havertz, Mount, Werner, Pulisic and the rest will all open up gaps for Kovacic to surge into and deliver the attack.
He is the man that can link together defence and attack more seamlessly than anyone else whilst still providing to both areas of the game individually. Just because we can’t name his role doesn’t mean he doesn’t fit in.
Kovacic also becomes so much more important in big games if he can play as he did against Spurs. This was the first time that Lampard had used a 4-3-3 against a big side and it helped Chelsea to not only dominate the game but also control the game in and out of possession and in transition, Mateo Kovacic is one of the only players to contribute in all three.
Mateo Kovacic’s role at Chelsea
Finally, for the millionth time so far this season, during an intense COVID-19 hit schedule it is vital to not only have a squad to fall back on but also to have competition and true depth. If Mateo Kovacic can continue to play like he is then Havertz doesn’t play and it’s that simple.
Rotation is key and Chelsea possess the weapons to hurt people from the get-go and from the bench, Kovacic can be a danger no matter when or where he is used but knowing that a club-record signing is ready in the wings to replace you will only drive players on.
Written by Tom Coley (@jt4253)
Edited by Rob Pratley (@RJPJournalism)