Mateo Kovacic’s move to Chelsea in 2018 happened without too much procession, but the Croatian has gone on to become one of the best players at the club.
Despite having three different managers in just under three years in London, Kovacic has always found himself part of the starting XI, an impressive achievement considering the different systems used at Chelsea during that time.
But just how did Kovacic adapt from his arrival at Stamford Bridge under Maurizio Sarri to Thomas Tuchel’s current job for him, via Frank Lampard?
Maurizio Sarri: The ball-carrier
Kovacic’s arrival at Chelsea on loan from Real Madrid (part of the deal that took Thibaut Courtois to the Bernabeu) coincided with Maurizio Sarri’s first season in charge at Stamford Bridge and there was a very clear spot for him in the Italian’s team.
“He is a perfect fit for us this season, his style is well suited to how Maurizio wants to play and we are sure he will prove to be a valuable asset for the club,” Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia said upon his arrival.
Sarrismo, or Sarri-ball relied on a three-man midfield in which there was one deeper man looking to move the ball around the pitch, linking the defence and the rest of the team (Jorginho), one on the right who had more defensive responsibilities as a box-to-box midfielder of sorts, and the left-sided midfielder, a ball-carrier whose sole responsibility was the link with the attack and get the ball forward, both with passing and dribbling.
When he was on the pitch for Chelsea (and not being substituted for Ross Barkley), Kovacic was one of the hubs of Sarri’s team. During the 2018/19 Premier League campaign, only Cesc Fabregas and Jorginho averaged more touches per 90 minutes than Kovacic among the Chelsea team. And with that duo playing in the deeper midfield role, it was to be expected. Kovacic played very close to Eden Hazard on the left wing (see heat map and passes received/movement network visuals above) as the most advanced of the midfield trio, forming a very neat triangle with the winger and left back. After all, Sarri loved to attack down his left.
But Kovacic’s passing wasn’t restricted to the left-hand side. He was also used to switch the ball across the pitch if an option wasn’t on for Jorginho, for example, or when his flank was too crowded as opposition defences started to cotton on to how Chelsea played. And, of course, his dribbling was key in getting Chelsea up the pitch, with only Pedro and Hazard completing more take-ons than Kovacic in that season, and the Croatian averaging 2.17 per 90 minutes.
He also had slightly less defensive work compared to the rest of the Chelsea midfield, averaging 6.3 recoveries per 90 minutes in the 2018/19 Premier League, less than any of his teammates. But only Fabregas averaged more tackles per 90 minutes than Kovacic’s 2.32 among the Chelsea midfielders.
Kovacic’s season was deemed underwhelming but his performances under Sarri were enough to persuade Chelsea to make the loan move permanent and the Croatian was their only arrival of Frank Lampard’s first summer in charge, a result of the transfer ban.
Frank Lampard: The holding role
When Lampard took over, there were the dreams of him using Kovacic in his Sarri role and moulding him in his image. After all, as a player, Lampard was one of the greatest goalscoring midfielders in football history and Chelsea’s all-time top scorer. Could he turn Kovacic, a player who hadn’t scored in over two years, into a goal-getter?
Kovacic did get two goals under Lampard’s tenure but really the answer was, ‘no.’ Instead, Kovacic saw himself dropped into a more deeper midfield role as part of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, forming a defensive partnership alongside Jorginho and at Kante’s expense.
Kovacic averaged slightly more recoveries per 90 minutes under Lampard than he did Sarri (up to 6.88), more tackles (2.51). saw his touches in the opposition box drop to less than one per 90 (0.84)
That didn’t stop Kovacic from being more involved further up the pitch, but his average position when receiving the ball was slightly deeper than under Sarri. Instead, he stuck closer to his midfield partner. His passing was also more reserved, focusing on feeding the players around him and less on switching the ball across the pitch. That role was left for other midfielders.
Kovacic did increase his take-ons, averaging 2.85 per 90 minutes under Lampard (and more than any other player at the club in total), but it didn’t help him in front of goal. His non-penalty Expected Goals dropped massively last season, a sad sight for all those hoping for Lampard 2.0. But he was excellent as Chelsea finished fourth in the Premier League and was named the club’s Player of the Season.
The first half of the 2020/21 season under Lampard saw Kovacic drop even deeper and become less attacking, until Thomas Tuchel unlocked the Croatian.
Thomas Tuchel: The prober
It’s still very early into the Tuchel reign, but Kovacic is looking to be near to his attacking best and has been given a freer role in the midfield. With the switch to a back three, Kovacic has more defensive cover behind him and can be more focused on the attacking side of his game. In direct comparison with his form earlier this season, Kovacic is creating more chances, attempting and completing more take-ons and taking more shots.
Up next for Chelsea is another tough test, with Manchester United coming to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon, looking to end Tuchel’s unbeaten start to life in England. A lot of the focus for the game will be the attacking players and whether they can improve on their finishing.
Kovacic’s heat map is a lot more central under Tuchel than it was with Lampard in charge and while the small sample size will play a role in that, it does also suggest another change in his responsibilities. He spreads towards the opposition penalty area more than his own and does try more over-the-top passes to his attacking team-mates. It’s only a matter of time before the forwards find their feet under Tuchel and give Kovacic the assists he deserves.
Relevant Sky Bet odds for Chelsea vs Man Utd:
Mateo Kovacic to assist 1+ goals: 9/2
Mateo Kovacic to assist 2+ goals: 50/1
You can also begin to see the defensive shift for Kovacic, with fewer recoveries and tackles, while the non-penalty xG is back up, as are the shots.
There are other stars in this Chelsea team that will get the credit and headlines, but Kovacic has once again proven he is one of their best players, capable to fit any system and any manager.