Football Features

Mateo Kovacic: How Chelsea midfielder went from ‘replacing Barkley’ role to filling Kante hole

By Harry Edwards

Published: 15:45, 4 November 2019

Not many people were sure what to expect from Chelsea this season, with the Blues enduring a transfer ban and handing inexperienced Frank Lampard the reins.

But the west London club have surprised most to sit fourth in the Premier League after 11 games and stand in a comfortable position top of their Champions League group.

At the heart of Chelsea’s success, and receiving a lot of the praise, has been their academy graduates with the likes of Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount starring across the campaign. Special mentions have also been reserved for Jorginho, who has overcome his doubters, and new signing Christian Pulisic.

But one player who often seems to be missed out when it comes to praise is Mateo Kovacic who, like Jorginho, has overcome negative stimulus to become one of Lampard’s key men.

Replacing Ross Barkley…

Kovacic first joined Chelsea in August 2018, on a season-long loan from Real Madrid that was initially greeted with excitement from the Blues’ faithful.

And he started life in west London fairly well, showing attacking intent for Maurizio Sarri and building a good relationship with Eden Hazard, who he could sometimes be mistaken for given the pair’s similar builds and boot choices.

Kovacic proved to be a wonderful footballer to watch on the ball at times, but the Croatian lacked final product, producing just two assists from 25 chances created – not a good enough return for a left-sided midfielder in Sarri’s system. He also failed to score under Sarri, with his last goal for club or country coming in January 2017 for Real Madrid.

There also appeared to be a lack of faith in Kovacic from Sarri to complete a full match in the Premier League, with the midfielder finishing just two of his 21 starts and coming off the bench 11 times. More often than not, Kovacic was replaced by Ross Barkley – or vice versa – around the hour mark, so much so that it has been joked about by Chelsea on social media this season.

In fact, the duo were substituted for each other on 22 occasions for Sarri across all competitions last season. Kovacic replaced Barkley seven times, while the Croatian was replaced by Chelsea’s no.8 on 15 occasions and fans started to get frustrated with the predictable change.

This, combined with the eventual breakthrough of Ruben Loftus-Cheek meant things didn’t look too bright for Kovacic at Chelsea.

Frank Lampard’s influence

However, Kovacic found himself returning to Chelsea on a permanent deal in the summer – the club’s only arrival given their transfer ban – and was given a fresh chance to impress new boss Frank Lampard. The question was, where would he fit in?

Although Chelsea were unable to bring in any more new players, they did have Mason Mount returning from an impressive loan spell at Derby County under Lampard, adding to the midfield talent of Jorginho, Barkley and N’Golo Kante – not to mention Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who remains sidelined through injury.

With Kante on the treatment table, Kovacic spent pre-season as either the right-sided central midfielder in a 4-3-3 or holding alongside Jorginho in a 4-2-3-1, which is a role he fulfilled for the opening game of the season against Manchester United.

But wherever he plays, Kovacic has been an excellent member of Chelsea’s midfield and looks to have taken his game up a notch. Lampard must take some of the credit for it.

Since his arrival as manager, Lampard and Kovacic appear to have built a good relationship, with the Croatian midfielder keen to learn from the former Chelsea man – particularly on the goals front.

“I’m looking forward to working with him a lot. He was an amazing player and he showed last season that he is a good coach as well,” he told Chelsea’s official website in July.

“I’m looking forward to learning how to score from him because he scored quite a lot and me not so much last season! I’m maybe not exactly the same type of midfielder as he was but he had some strong abilities, especially scoring goals.

“He was a hard worker so I’m looking forward to being better in this aspect, in working hard, fighting on the pitch and scoring goals.”

As previously mentioned, it is almost three years since Kovacic last scored a goal, a total of 140 games and 1,010 days, while Lampard is Chelsea’s all-time record goalscoring having managed 211 across a 13-year career at the club.

And while that elusive goal is yet to come, Kovacic has improved in attack. The Croatian midfielder has recorded one assist from eight chances created so far in the Premier League, while also completing 75 passes into the final third – only Jorginho has more at Chelsea.

Kovacic has also completed the second-most passes at Chelsea with 563, once again only behind pass-master Jorginho, but the Croatian leads the way at Stamford Bridge for take-ons, completing 26 – 10 more than any other player.

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Helping to fill in for N’Golo Kante

But perhaps Kovacic’s biggest influence at Chelsea this season can be found in his defensive performances, helping the Blues deal without the injured Kante.

The 25-year-old has shown himself to have excellent defensive work-rate, running back into his own area in Kante-like style, giving his all to help Chelsea’s back four.

In 11 Premier League games so far this season, only Cesar Azpilicueta (28) and Jorginho (27) have made more tackles than Kovacic’s 22 though the Croatian’s have come at a better rate of 2.82 per 90 minutes. Among outfield players, again only Jorginho (107) has made more recoveries than Kovacic’s 69, but the Croatian stood out ahead of the rest in Chelsea’s recent win over Watford.

Playing the full 90 minutes at Vicarage Road, no one was busier for Chelsea than Kovacic, with the midfielder having 157 touches of the ball – the most any Premier League player has managed in a single game this season.

The Croatian also completed 135 passes, another Premier League high for a single game, misplacing just six with only Aymeric Laporte (145) attempting more passes in one match than Kovacic (141) did against Watford.

Kovacic’s three tackles against Watford was a joint-high among his team-mates, with Tomori and Azpilicueta also managing three, while the Croatian midfielder was also top of the pile with recoveries (11) – level alongside Jorginho.

His performance against Watford was rightly praised by Lampard, who said: “Kovacic, his ability to play – him and Jorgi together – and then that ability to drive from midfield, that’s not the norm.

“As a midfield player it’s your worst nightmare having a player who can play and then drive by you out of nowhere. He was doing that today to great effect.”

Where will N’Golo Kante fit in when he returns?

Kovacic’s wonderful performances in both defence and attack means Lampard has a fairly big selection headache coming up. The Croatian is almost undroppable for Chelsea right now, but Kante has returned from injury and there will be expectations for the Frenchman to be put back into the Blues team such is his importance.

So how does Lampard fit both Kante and Kovacic into his starting XI? Like Kovacic, Jorginho is also verging on undroppable, with the Italian international’s passing abilities key to Lampard’s attacking style of play. His assist for Abraham, a first-time curling pass around the defence was perfection.

A 4-3-3 is the only way Lampard would be able to fit all three players in without hindering their individual impact, meaning an attacking star would miss out.

Of the more central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1, Mount would be the obvious choice to miss out, but the Englishman – Chelsea’s most creative player, having set up 20 chances – has also proven himself capable of fitting in on the wing which would also work in a 4-3-3.

This could lead to Willian potentially dropping down to the bench, with Pulisic in a good run of form, scoring four goals in his past three games across all competitions.

Fortunately for Lampard, though, he won’t have to consider this until after the international break with Kante unlikely to start against Ajax on Tuesday as Chelsea will want to ease the Frenchman back into the team in an attempt to avoid another injury setback.

Kante could get a start in Chelsea’s Premier League home game against Crystal Palace on Saturday, with Jorginho ruled out through suspension for that game after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season at Watford.

This could see Kante and Kovacic starting alongside each other at the base of a 4-2-3-1, with the Croatian playing in more of Jorginho role, and an attacking trio of Pulisic, Willian and Mount providing the chances for lethal striker Abraham.