In the first part of an exclusive interview with Mateo Kovacic, one of Chelsea’s leading lights this season, the midfielder reflects on the reasons behind his fine performances of late, analyses his partnership with Jorginho, and explains what he is doing to try to score that elusive first goal…
Mateo Kovacic is in the form of his Chelsea career; perhaps, even, the form of his whole professional career, which started nine years ago this week when he appeared for Dinamo Zagreb aged just 16.
The breadth of Kovacic’s midfield abilities have been on full display in recent months, and his reading of the game, precise passing and bullish ball-carrying are borne out by the stats.
At Chelsea only N’Golo Kante averages more interceptions than him, and Kovacic is also in our top five tacklers this season. His passing has been fluid and accurate, too. No other Premier League midfielder averages as many successful passes a game as he does (73.8).
Of the 40 players in the Premier League to have attempted 30 or more dribbles this season, Kovacic has the best completion rate. On average he beats his man almost eight times out of 10, opposition players bewildered by the mix of close control, guile and acceleration that is so thrilling to watch in the middle of the park.
‘As a midfield player it’s your worst nightmare having a player who can play and then drive by you out of nowhere,’ commented Frank Lampard after Kovacic’s virtuoso performance at Watford a couple of weeks ago.
Indeed, the Croatian ranks second in the league for what Opta call ‘ball carries’: a player moving the ball five metres or more. He is, quite simply, one of the best midfielders in the Premier League right now.
‘My game is to open spaces for other people,’ Kovacic tells us.
‘It’s a big strength and I have felt I am trying it a lot more because we play a little bit different football to last year. Now we are more direct, more aggressive, we just try things we didn’t try last year. I feel better.
‘I think my best position is in a midfield two,’ he adds.
‘I can play as well in a midfield three, but in the two I feel maybe more comfortable with more freedom. But in the end the formation doesn’t matter too much.’
At Inter Milan and Real Madrid, Kovacic was shuffled around in midfield, sometimes in the hole, sometimes a deep-lying playmaker, occasionally a box-to-box no.8. At Chelsea, it seems he has found his spot in the team, whether in a central two or a three.
‘Of course it’s better to have consistency in your position. To move around the pitch is not so good, when you’re playing one year there, and another year there.
‘That has also been a bit of a problem in my career. Everything happened too fast for me. I had three great and difficult years in Madrid. I played, didn’t play, I didn’t get the continuity that I needed and what I have now here. I enjoyed it, we won three Champions Leagues, but Chelsea is coming in the best moment of my career. It has been the most important switch for now and I’m really pleased with that.’
He is pleased, too, to have forged such an influential relationship with Jorginho in recent weeks, with everyone from Lampard to Mason Mount heaping praise on the duo. In the Premier League this season, no other midfield pairing has found each other as often as they have, helping maintain the tempo of our play and creating angles to find team-mates in more advanced positions.
‘I watched Jorginho when he was at Napoli, when we played against each other, but I think now he is getting even better,’ Kovacic states.
‘He is a great player. I didn’t know he was so good, but when you train with him you see it. I’m enjoying it, I think he is as well, and we need to keep working on that.’
For all his undoubted quality on the ball, and his tactical acumen off it helping break up play, there is still one thing missing from Kovacic’s game in Chelsea blue - goals.
He is without one for club or country since January 2017, but find the video highlights of those he netted for Inter and Real and you’ll see a broad range of strikes any midfielder would be proud of.
He had seven goals for the San Siro giants before the halfway mark of the 2014/15 campaign, including a European hat-trick, and he recognises goalscoring could return to his repertoire at any point.
‘The most important is the first one. One year at Inter I scored a lot of goals because I started the season scoring a lot of goals. Then you continue and it goes along.
‘I never had the pressure to score goals, I was never obsessed because my game is not about goals, but obviously if I want to go to the next step I need to improve it.
‘The coach was the greatest goalscoring midfielder that ever played. There were many, but he really scored a lot of goals. He tells me always that I need to shoot. Now I am trying more!
‘It’s just a thing of mentality, to try to score, to be aggressive and to have the hunger to score goals. I want to improve that, I’m trying to improve that and I am sure I will get there.’
Last week Lampard described Kovacic as a ‘very likeable character’ and a ‘really good player’, adding his ‘natural progression is scoring goals’. It’s one of the reasons the boss, his Chelsea team-mates and Blues supporters everywhere will be so ecstatic when Kovacic crowns his great form by finding the net, ensuring one of the unsung heroes of our season so far gets his moment in the spotlight.
In part two tomorrow, Kovacic reflects on coping with stardom early and the strong mentality of our young players, and also explains why Frank Lampard is the perfect teacher for this Chelsea squad...