“I’d like very much that Kovacic will stay with us.” Maurizio Sarri was outlining his plans for next season, albeit ones which depend upon Chelsea’s current transfer ban being postponed or lifted – not to mention his own place in the dugout.
A stubborn man prioritised a player who illustrates the problems with Sarriball, at least in its current guise. Mateo Kovacic has undoubted technical talent, a CV that includes three years at Real Madrid and status as a man who helped his country to the World Cup final. He has gifts such that Giovanni Trapattoni described him as a mix between Kaka and Clarence Seedorf.
And yet, somehow, he contrived to become the most pointless player in the Premier League.
Not the worst. Indeed, in one respect, he is almost the best. Only John Stones can better his 92.3% pass completion rate. He averages more than 75 passes per 90 minutes on the pitch. And yet, arguably, few have as much of the ball and do as little with it. Inadvertently, he may have become the definition of possession without purpose, the playmaker who has made too few things happen.
Style without substance
Ball retention is only a means to an end if there’s an end product. Kovacic has two assists this season. He has gone 27 months without scoring for clubs or country. But it is the context, rather than the statistics, that render his drought such an issue.
It can be overly simplistic to judge players by their goal tallies and yet, given the composition of Chelsea’s midfield, goals are precisely what they require. N’Golo Kante and Jorginho have contrasting characteristics; the Venn diagram of their shortcomings centres around scoring.
The third member of the central trio has to compensate. Ross Barkley has five goals, and a further two for England; Ruben Loftus-Cheek is on eight. They have a combined tally of 13 assists. Neither may be the perfect player to complement Kante and Jorginho, but each offers some incision, some attacking intent and some ball-carrying ability. Each has shown signs that he recognises the need to provide something his sidekicks rarely do.
Kovacic, in contrast, provides still fewer goals than them. The over-reliance on Eden Hazard is in part a function of that unproductive midfield.
Jorginho’s lack of assists has been noted, but there are two rebuttals to those criticisms: others waste the chances he creates and, from the holding role, he is less likely to supply the defence-splitting ball. Kovacic, however, has spent much of his Chelsea career as a No.8.
Perhaps he has been shoehorned into the wrong spot; perhaps he is one of several Sarri charges who would suit 4-2-3-1 better than 4-3-3. He has been done few favours, either, by the predictable substitutions when he and Barkley were invariably swapped, regardless of the scoreline or performance.
It’s a mindset
And yet it’s hard to escape the sense that it is in part a question of attitude. Kovacic scored eight times in his final season at Inter Milan. He has occasionally shown a capacity to find the net, but seems to have entered the sort of state of mind that Emile Heskey spent much of his career in, where he appeared to act as if goalscoring was not his responsibility.
And perhaps it might not be next season. Sarri explained his enthusiasm to keep the on-loan Croatian by saying he saw him as a possible alternative to Jorginho as the resident regista.
Rather than being the next Kaka, a classy No.10, he could be Chelsea’s new Cesc Fabregas; the passer moved deeper. And yet, as Sarri said, he is not a defensive midfielder. He is not a destructive presence but, so far this season, he has constructed too little.
Meanwhile, Chelsea famously possess arguably the world’s best defensive midfielder and refuse to use him as such. Kovacic is not responsible for the decision-making, but he is a symptom of it.