Mateo Kovacic: 'Wunderkid' to Galactico
When dubbed the 'Croatian Messi' as a 16-year-old, Mateo Kovacic said he was nowhere near the Argentinian and that he'd based his steadily growing game on two of Spain's most talented midfielders – Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.
Come the start of the season – given how close Real Madrid are – it seems like Kovacic will go head to head against Messi and Iniesta. Signing from Inter Milan for around €32m, many feel the move to the biggest club in world football is a little too early but going by how Kovacic has grown and evolved – both at Dynamo Zagreb and Inter Milan – it seems like the perfect time to head to the Bernabeu.
“The player needed team-mates at a higher level that could help him grow, but instead he found himself as a leader at 20-years-old, and (he had to) assume responsibilities that were too big so that his flaws have been magnified and his productivity disappeared," said Inter Milan club legend, Luis Suarez.
"Star of the future"
Soon after Kovacic moved to Inter, Andrea Stramaccioni played him against many tough oppositions both in the domestic league and in Europe but Kovacic's finest performance for Inter came when they demolished Tottenham Hotspurs 5-1 to qualify for the further stages of the Europa league. Post that game, Stramaccioni said Kovacic was a 'star of the future'.
Despite the praise and the obvious displays of talent, the Croatian didn't manage to rake up mainly due to Stramaccioni's use of two deep-lying midfielders. Kovacic can be best compared to someone like present-day Santi Cazorla – he's short, he's got a burst of pace and can pick a pass through a crowd. He plays in a similar role too, next to a deep-lying-midfielder with clever runners ahead of him.
However, the system at Inter under Stramaccioni inhibited his grown per se and he had to adapt to a bunch of roles - even playing games as a winger and a false nine.
Yet the one thing that baffled many Inter supporters was why Kovacic took nearly 14 months to net his first goal. For a youngster so talented, so composed on the ball, it took way too long for Kovacic to score a goal but when he did, the floodgates opened and he started to really shine and show his fans what he's capable of.
Many of these performances – and goal scoring exploits – brought about comparisons with another club legend in Andrea Pirlo but Suarez believes that albeit the comparisons were too premature, the talent was there to replicate a lot of the skills and characteristics that made Pirlo so successful.
“Kovacic has the quality to become the new Pirlo. And don’t tell me he struggles in the defensive phase because at the same age Pirlo defended badly, but then improved in that aspect of his game.
“When you saw him [Kovacic] play, you could tell he was on another level compared to the others," he added.
There was a time this transfer window – and even slightly before it – where Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool were trying ever so hard to land the Croatian. For Liverpool, he was the ideal replacement for outgoing Steven Gerrard. Jordon Henderson may be the captain and may now fill the spot Gerrard had but Rodgers knew he needed a ball-playing midfielder – someone who can dribble, someone who could impose himself on the game right from the start.
Similarly, the few skills that drew the attention of Arsenal's Arsene Wenger was Kovacic's low centre of gravity, his burst of pace and his ability to take on players in the centre of the field – which is something much different from when you take them on on the wings.
Wenger sent chief scout Steve Rowley to watch Kovacic many times but finally decided against a move probably due to the rise and rise of Jack Wilshere and a new signing in Aaron Ramsey.
Wenger and Rodgers both knew Kovacic was a talent worth watching out for. He's one of the last in a generation of midfielders that are confident on the ball, play from the back and look for subtle striker movements. Almost exactly like Pirlo. And Zinedine Zidane.
Ronaldo to benefit
He simply does not give up the ball. Call it arrogant or even unselfish, Kovacic would rather wait to find a pass up front that give it across or back to the defenders. He would wriggle his way through two, three, four midfielder pulling everyone in and then finding the perfect pass to let loose a striker/winger.
His performances for Croatia were the same. Many complained that he took too long on the ball and tried too hard to execute that final pass but with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic sitting alongside him in midfield, Kovacic was given that freedom to do what he does best.
With Modric and, now, Toni Kroos alongside him at Real Madrid, Kovacic can flourish. He'll play deeper than James Rodriguez but will likely find Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema a lot more than the Colombian.
Ronaldo complained and was heartbroken when his friend Mesut Ozil left Madrid for Arsenal but given the passing ability and the vision of Kovacic, it looks like Ronaldo's goal scoring exploits will get a lot more interesting.
All in all, Kovacic's move to Madrid will do both parties a world of good. Roberto Mancini admitted he didn't want to sell Kovacic but was forced to do so because of FFP and that should serve testament to the little 'wunderkid'.
He might take a while to settle in at Madrid but once he does, the talent that surrounds him will lift him and the team to a whole 'nother level.