As the clock ticked down towards the summer transfer deadline of 2018, Chelsea were in disarray. The club had hoped to get Thibaut Courtois to sign a contract extension, however, with just days left in the transfer window the Belgian shot-stopper had gone missing.
Courtois's actions forced the Blues to admit defeat in the transfer saga and reluctantly accept a low bid from Real Madrid for his services.
Trying to soften the blow of their star goalkeeper's departure, Chelsea negotiated an exchange with Real Madrid for Mateo Kovacic.
The Blues demanded that Los Blancos loan them the Croat midfielder for the season, which the latter agreed to albeit without the option or the obligation to purchase him outright.
"He could play in any team with that level", said Frank Lampard about Kovacic following his side's 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich. The midfielder was the only shining star for the Blues on a night to forget, as they were humbled at home by the mighty Bavarians.
Lampard's appreciation of Kovacic post-match showed how far the Croat had come, following a difficult first season at Stamford Bridge. The ex-Real Madrid man had adjusted well to life in England initially, dazzling the fans with his silky dribbling skills.
However, as the season progressed, fans grew frustrated with head coach Maurizio Sarri's tactics, and those frustrations, in turn, were channelled towards the players.
Personally, things didn't improve for Kovacic either, as his deficiencies in scoring goals were singled out by the supporters. The Croat ended up losing his place in the first team to Ruben Loftus-Cheek towards the end of the season, which he only recovered later following a long-term injury to the Englishman.
Nevertheless, since the return of Frank Lampard in the Chelsea dressing room, Kovacic has been a man transformed. The Croat has excelled in different systems under the Englishman, proving the club right in their decision to buy him outright following his sub-par loan spell.
Kovacic has amassed the sixth-most minutes for the first-team this season and has been a mainstay in the midfield alongside Jorginho and Mason Mount. He has played entirely as a left-sided central midfielder despite Lampard varying his formation time and again (4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-3 have all been used by the Chelsea head coach).
The ex-Real Madrid man has been one of the best central midfielders in the league this season, excelling in almost all facets of his game. Among the midfielders to have completed 90 minutes on 10 or more occasions, he has the second-most touches per ninety, 93.9. This is only behind Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan.
He is also the league's second-best dribbler in his position this season, attempting 3.69 dribbles per game while completing 2.73, with a completion rate of 74 per cent.
Kovacic leads the league in ball carries per 90, averaging 77.3 each game. He retains the top spot in terms of running with the ball from midfield while is only second in terms of progressive running, i.e, running into the forward channels.
Furthermore, the Croatian central midfielder ranks low among the target group in poor control and dispossessions. This showcases his immense ability to keep the ball and move it towards the danger zones.
While his smooth dribbling skills have been on display throughout the season, his passing has flown under the radar. The Chelsea man, once again, is second only to Gundogan in passes attempted (83.5) and completed (75) per 90.
With an almost 90 per cent pass accuracy, he ranks third behind Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum and the ever-present Gundogan. Nevertheless, he ranks second among central midfielders in terms of distance covered with his passes and first for progressive distance.
Kovacic has also been surprisingly solid in his defensive duties. He is ranked seventh in tackles attempted per ninety in his category, fractionally behind teammate N'Golo Kante. Furthermore, 2.46 successful tackles per 90 see him take the sixth spot in the division. Finally, the World Cup finalist completes 7.49 successful presses on an average and is third among central midfielders in terms of the percentage (32.7%).
Admittedly, the Chelsea man has fallen short in the shooting department. However, the underlying statistics show that the Croat is proving to be worth every penny that the Blues paid to Real Madrid for his services.
It has been quite a turnaround for Kovacic at Chelsea. The Croatian international had been one of the best central midfielders in the league before the season's suspension. Furthermore, he was his team's best performer across all competitions throughout the campaign and was the favourite to be named their Player of the Year.
Kovacic's stellar campaign also saw him surpass fellow Chelsea midfielders Jorginho and Kante in terms of importance. As much is evident by the fact that the Blues have picked up an average of 1.68 points when the Croatian has played. This is in contrast to the 1.62 points with Jorginho and 1.06 points with Kante - the second-lowest in the squad.
The ex-Real Madrid star also outranks his midfield partners in terms of pass completion percentage, successful tackles percentage, key passes per ninety, and dribbles per 90 across all competitions. He has had a hand in five goals this season, scoring two and assisting three - a tally worse than Jorginho's but better than Kante's.
Chelsea find themselves in a peculiar position going into the 2020/21 season - whenever that may be. Despite the Blues' haphazard transfer and youth policy, they have somehow landed on a goldmine of midfield players. Seasoned professionals such as Kovacic, Jorginho, and Kante are joined by youngsters Mason Mount, Billy Gilmour, Conor Gallagher and more. This gives Lampard a wealth of options for the years ahead.
Midfield is the strongest area for Chelsea currently and it is one Lampard must look to while building a strong team both for the present and the future. Furthermore, the Englishman has a strong group of young players at his disposal.
With senior players like Willian and Pedro set to depart, Lampard needs a central sustainable figure to build his team around.
Kovacic, then, could be exactly that. The Croat has emerged as the Blues' best player this season, leaving both Jorginho and Kante in his wake. Furthermore, the central midfielder will turn only 26 in May 2020 and yet has plenty of top-level experience behind him.
Although he needs to add goals to his game, his all-around game and versatility have proven to be an invaluable asset - enough to make a case for him as Chelsea's new lynchpin.
The same cannot be said for Kante. The Frenchman has had his worst season this time around in terms of appearances. This is partly due to several injuries - both old and new - which he sustained during the campaign. He has also just turned 29 and is expected to lose his mobility - which is his greatest asset - going forward.
He has failed to completely adapt to an attacking system either, throwing his future at Stamford Bridge in doubt.
Kante's case at Chelsea is certainly curious. While it doesn't make sense to hold on to an extremely talented player only to use him in an unsuitable system, it is also too late for the club to build a team around him.
As a result, the best resolution for all parties involved is to sell the two-time league winner and replace him with a younger, more suitable, alternative.
Like Kante, Jorginho's future at Stamford Bridge also remains in doubt. The midfielder, who will turn 29 this year, still has his critics in London. However, the Italian could still enjoy a Pirlo-esque renaissance, partly due to his role being restricted to one area on the pitch.
Nonetheless, Kovacic's ability to play deeper, along with Gilmour's resurgence, Loftus-Cheek's imminent return, and Mount's versatility have presented Lampard with enough options in the middle of the park.
Once again, the sensible move for the club going forward would be to focus on the young and emerging talent and sell Jorginho for the right price before his stock declines.
The arguments presented don't suggest an immediate sale of two of Chelsea's most influential players. Rather, their departures should be dealt with carefully and only after selecting suitable replacements.
The Blues have a talented group of young players earmarked for that position too and a few right moves could provide them with one of the best midfields in the world.
Coming back to the present, Kovacic has been Chelsea's best midfielder this season by some distance and should rightly be crowned as the club's Player of the Season. That is if the season is completed and a ceremony takes place at all.
But while the club fights for its present amid a worldwide pandemic, it must also look towards its future. And all the signs point towards the fact that the future of Lampard's team is brightest with the Croat at its centre.Published 19 Apr 2020, 21:56 IST