Disinterested in his backup squad role. Subsequent unsuccessful crunch talks with Julen Lopetegui. Striking from training to force a move. It’s fair to say Mateo Kovacic’s time at Real Madrid is up.
Debate has shrouded his summer with all of Tottenham, Manchester United and Manchester City interested in the World Cup runner-up. But it’s Chelsea who have seemingly secured his signature after a blossom of late interest.
Los Blancos have reluctantly relented on their desire to keep Kovacic at the Santiago Bernabeu, and the Blues, as per MARCA, have agreed a one-year loan deal with a reported option to buy.
Superficially, this is a win for both parties: Chelsea reinforce their midfield with a fantastic player, whilst Kovacic gets the regular playing time he craves. But what role will the 24-year-old play? Where do his strengths lie? Just how much will he improve their midfield?
A starter at practically any other club in Europe, it would be extremely harsh to use the fact that Kovacic never fully established himself at Real Madrid as an argument against his ability. This is a young player, mind, who was gifted — to use the term loosely — the unwanted task of displacing one of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, two of the best midfielders of their generation.
Kovacic is a brilliant player, of that there’s no doubt. And it’s hardly surprising to see him grow disillusioned with life as a backup. With three Champions League titles, one La Liga and a World Cup runner-up medal, the 24-year-old has grown increasingly confident in his own ability.
As he should. The Croatian is one of the best players in the world when it comes to ball retention, and his passing accuracy of 93.7% for Los Blancos last season — the best of any player — is a testament to as much.
KEY STAT: Kovacic made a successful dribble more frequently (every 28.2 minutes) than any other central midfielder in La Liga to make 20 or more appearances last season.
He also completed 35 dribbles in 2017/18, at a success rate of 89.7%, indicative of his press resistance. Compare this to Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele (83.9%) — a player renowned for his dribbling and press resistance — and Kovacic reigns supreme. The caveat here, though, is that Dembele made seven more appearances, all of which were starts.
A deep midfielder
What Kovacic does, he does excellently. However, his role has always been of greater importance in build-up play. He doesn’t contribute hugely in the final third. In 270 career appearances, for example, he’s only played as an advanced midfielder 11.5% of the time, with 125 appearances coming as a holding player in central midfield.
To emphasise this point, let’s look as his expected goals build-up per 90 minutes (xGB90).
This is a useful statistic when it comes to analysing and isolating players in a deeper role as it excludes final third contributions — key passes and shots specifically — when calculating an xG value for every possession the player is involved in.
Demonstrative of his primarily deeper position and importance in such a role, Kovacic’s xGB90 in 2017/18 (0.67) ranked him ahead of Toni Kroos (0.60) and second only to Luka Modric (0.70). He did play fewer minutes, though, so sample sizes should be taken into account.
By contrast, Kovacic’s xGChain per 90 — the total xG of every possession a player is involved in including shots and key passes — ranks him significantly lower. With a value of 0.72, this puts him 11th, behind the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo (1.24), Karim Benzema (1.06) and Gareth Bale (0.99), all players with noticeably greater final third contributions. Both Modric (0.90) and Kroos (0.73), too, are ahead of him.
The player Chelsea need?
Were Chelsea in need of a ball-progressing eight, someone to orchestrate their build-up play, then Kovacic’s skillset would be perfect. However, the reality of the situation is that they’re not.
Hark back to Maurizio Sarri’s time at Napoli. He had Jorginho — who joins him at Stamford Bridge in a £57 million deal — sitting at the base of the midfield as the conductor. Allan was tasked with the box-to-box running as per N’Golo Kante, whilst Marek Hamsik was the most advanced midfielder, essentially playing as a deeper ten.
With Ruben Loftus-Cheek set to leave on loan, this leaves just Ross Barkley to fill this role. This is the void, therefore, in Chelsea’s current midfield options and it’s not a role Kovacic can play well.
For instance, Kovacic doesn’t offer a goal threat, scoring just 13 goals in his career, whilst Hamsik hit 12 alone in 2016/17 and another seven in last season’s Serie A. Moreover, Kovacic’s expected assists per 90 (xA90) since joining Madrid in 2015 has been 0.11, whereas Hamsik’s is 0.21 for Napoli in the same time.
This is for an attacking Madrid side, too, who, like Napoli, averaged high amounts of possession under Zinedine Zidane, and created 92.89 xG compared to Napoli’s 71.98 xG in 2017/18.
Lack of midfield creativity
A Kovacic loan, therefore, benefits the player but not Chelsea as they might have hoped.
The Croatian will enjoy more playing time and adds strength in depth to the midfield. But the issue is that the Blues already boast two starters whose skills lay in their passing ability, ball progression and press resistance.
Thus, this creates a midfield dynamic lacking in final third creativity, given Jorginho’s xA90 value of 0.15 and Kante’s of 0.08, both figures taken since 2015. Kovacic won’t solve this creative dearth and it puts more pressure on the front three to champion these efforts.
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