Scout report: Where does Mateo Kovacic fit into Real Madrid's plans?
The 21-year-old midfielder arrived at the Bernabeu on a six-year deal, but will he get the chance to slot straight into the starting XI?
In January 2013, Internazionale signed a Croatian midfielder who would inherit a shirt number of immense prestige. Sporting the no.10 on the back of a black and blue jersey, Mateo Kovacic announced his arrival in Serie A. Inter Milan cut a cheque of €11 million plus bonuses for the 18-year-old, aware that the sum, even if steep for an unproven youngster, is likely to generate value.
Well, it did. Ever since, Kovacic has neither set the league on fire nor has he helped Inter qualify for the Champions League. He did, however, draw Real Madrid’s attention, which eventually cost the Spanish club €35 million in transfer fees. Kovacic is now wearing an all-white kit, beaming an all white smile under the Spanish sky in Madrid.
Kovacic more than just a marquee signing?
Real Madrid are obliged to make a marquee signing every season, sometimes, with blatant disregard to tactical intelligence. Perhaps Kovacic is the marquee signing of the summer? Perhaps he is more than just that? In this case, maybe, just maybe, he is more than just that.
“The player has talents that could make him even better than me. He is an incredibly serious professional for someone his age.
Kova?i? is a complete player. He is not a born regista but he is playing there now. He is a complete talent that can still grow – he has incredible potential.”
Those are words uttered by the legendary AC Milan midfielder, Zvonimir Boban. Kovacic is widely considered as ‘the next Boban’. Clearly, the man in question thinks that the young creative midfielder has the potential to be even better than the inherent limitation of that tag.
Kovacic made the fourth highest appearances for Inter in Serie A last season. The only midfielder who featured more for Inter was Gary Medel. Although Medel is a midfield pit bull with as much variety as a bowl of vanilla ice-cream, Kovacic’s broad skill set implied a wider usability. Under Roberto Mancini, Kovacic was experimented in multiple roles which included that of a deep-lying playmaker, a wing-forward, a left-winger and a trequartista.
Mancini’s tinkering did not provide the stability Kovacic needed to improve. But, the coach isn’t entirely to blame. Kovacic rarely put together a run of good performances, which further frustrated the fans and, possibly, the manager as well. He successfully projected himself as a depressingly inconsistent and hopelessly unreliable football player.
This image etched firmly in the minds of Interisti might have played its part in the boardroom finalising the sale faster than housekeeping could brew the afternoon tea. Massimo Moratti, while talking to Sport Mediaset said, “I believe it was a wise move. After all, the player had a lot more to prove. He was my final big signing and we paid circa €14m for him. I am neither happy nor sad to see Kovacic go, but I repeat, I think it was a good move.”
Kovacic’s style of play and strengths
Kovacic’s senior career started five years ago as he made his first appearance in Dinamo Zagreb’s senior team. Oddly, five years into his career, it is truly hard to assess which position best suits him. In the last two and a half seasons at Inter, Kovacic has blown hot and cold and his versatility has been duly exploited.
This isn’t to say that Kovacic isn’t a good player. He has the potential to be a far, far better football player. Needless to repeat his age, as at 21, he can be cut some slack. He costs a fitting fortune for his strengths and untapped raw talent.
At the very core of his attributes, Kovacic is a playmaker and a fairly classic one at that. His style involves take-ons, tight passes, dictating tempo and splitting defences with through balls. Thus far, he has been employed as a regista – or a deep lying playmaker. However, he likes to push forward, driving from midfield towards goal. In the process, he will need to overcome tackles and challenges of defences, which he does with admirable ease.
He is remarkably comfortable with the ball at his feet and enjoys a good dribble. He is, in many ways, reminiscent of a man who runs back to his roots repeatedly, as driving up the pitch makes Kovacic feel at home. After all, he did begin his career as an attacking midfielder.
Kovacic is an excellent passer of the ball. For instance, his pass success rate last season (87.5%) was better than Cesc Fabregas (85.2%). He provided more through balls per game (0.3) than Andrea Pirlo (0.2), Luka Modric (0.2) and Toni Kroos (0.1).
As a regista, Kovacic is required to do the dirty work of breaking down opposition play. He does tend to shy away from that and there have been concerns about his work-rate as well. He will need to improve the defensive facet of his game, adding a bit of graft to his craft. He fails to assert himself physically in the centre of the park due to his build and tends be outmuscled by burly midfielders. As a result, he struggles to win aerial balls too.
Where will Kovacic fit in at Real Madrid?
Florentino Perez, the current president of Real Madrid, has put his hands into his deep pockets to ensure Kovacic becomes a White Angel this summer. On the face of it, this move is undeniably baffling. Madrid are well stocked in central midfield and possess two extraordinary ball-playing midfielders in Kroos and Modric. Kovacic is capable of playing behind the striker, but James Rodriguez, Isco and Gareth Bale are presently competing for the spot.
So where exactly is that Kovacic shaped hole in the team? It’s on the bench.
Alarmed? That is a fair enough reaction given the costs involved. But, when the situation is further examined, Kroos and Modric are fundamental to the team. Yet, in their absence, or when they are not striking optimum fitness levels, Madrid have appeared broken and incoherent.
Last season, Kroos complained of fatigue in December and failed to replicate his form in the second half of the season. Modric’s injury meant he would play 16 off the 38 games Madrid played in the league. These problems had a telling effect, eventually aiding in Barcelona nipping the title on the last day of the season, as the Catalans won by a margin of two points. Had a player like Kovacic been available to Carlo Ancelotti at the time, we might have been discussing a different winner at the end of the season.
Modric will turn 30 in September this year. Madrid are surely aware and are planning for life after. Signing Kovacic might appear to be a gamble at this time, but who better to succeed Modric at Madrid, than the man heralded as the heir to Modric in the national team? As Modric ages, Kovacic will mature. The baton will be seamlessly passed on at the opportune time.
Kovacic might go on to become a legend at the Santiago Bernebau. He has the time and opportunity to write his name into the folklore of the club. If handled properly and with the right amount of dedication, Kovacic could make Perez proud, as well as one Mr. Boban.
Stats from WhoScored