Mateo Kovacic was a majestic midfielder at Inter, a superb no. 10, but he looked miles off that this afternoon as Chelsea drew against Wolves at home.
Now Kovacic wasn’t exactly the worst Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge, he didn’t make any colossal mistakes or anything. But equally he was nowhere near the best Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge.
The team was reliant on a stoppage-time stunner from Eden Hazard to get anything from a game they absolutely dominated, especially once Kovacic went off.
The Croatian scored eight goals for Inter in 2014/15, a total which earned him a move to Real Madrid. This should have been his big break, a wonderfully dynamic alternative to the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, someone who could carry the ball as well as pass and shoot it.
And whilst Kovacic’s presence was a key part of the squad depth that allowed Los Blancos to win three-straight Champions League trophies, the system fundamentally changed who he was as a player – and not for the better.
Change is nearly always thought of as good, especially when used with the phrase “evolution” in a sporting context. Players evolving, teams evolving… it’s all gravy, right? Well, in the case of Kovacic here’s a player who has very definitely changed.
RATINGS: Every player rated out of 10 as Chelsea leave it late to draw with Wolves – https://t.co/E50LdjTZ4G
Best = 8/10 👌
Worst = 4/10 😳 pic.twitter.com/7OxcRo8dT1
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 10, 2019
This isn’t a player who has simply gotten worse, he has proactively altered the positions and ways in which he plays, and it’s not worked.
At the Santiago Bernabeu, the role Kovacic ended up filling to maintain balance in the Madrid midfield was one of possession.
He became very safe with the ball, using his excellent dribbling skills deeper down the field to escape high presses and then making short lateral passes to the incredibly creative Madrid full-backs and allowing them to do their thing.
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That worked for Real Madrid, even though it reduced what could have been an elite talent into a squad player. The kind of place you’d usually see filled by a kid from the youth academy. But at least it worked, right? Los Blancos were an incredibly successful big game outfit, and this is because Kovacic could so often be trusted to handle the mundane tasks.
Well, at Chelsea it doesn’t work. And the reason for that is obvious: here at Chelsea the Croatian is not handing the ball off to Marcelo or Dani Carvajal, nor is he nudging it to Kroos or Modric.
His team-mates are worse and thus the role he’s being asked to play in the Chelsea midfield is a proactive one, he is clearly the designated “attacking midfielder” yet he offers nothing like the creativity he needs to.
His passing is safe, his dribbling is safe, nothing he does contains any sort of risk. That would be fine if he were playing at the base of midfield as Jorginho’s understudy or replacement, but you can’t put him as the most advanced midfielder, a player whose role is to break the opposing lines of defence with his passing.
Kovacic has become a different player to that, and it’s not a coincidence that Chelsea managed twice as many shots with him off the field as they did with him on it (15 vs. 7) and worse, they hit the target just once with him on but did so five times after he had been hauled off.
Hell, the Croatian hasn’t scored a goal at club level for over two years, which is an absurd run for a player as talented as him.
Obviously Chelsea avoided defeat, Hazard pulled it out of the bag as he has the obvious talent to do. But for Sarrismo to thrive at Stamford Bridge, they can’t just keep relying on the Belgian to bail them out.
They need to evolve into a fully functioning team, and that simply won’t happen with Kovacic as their attacking midfielder because the Croatian’s own personal evolution has made him a bad fit.