Mateo Kovačić, the Croatian talent who has been a shining light for a struggling Inter Milan side in the last couple of seasons. Kovačić was born in Austria where he began playing football as a young boy. By the age of 13, Mateo had drummed up interest from some of Europe’s best clubs including Bayern Munich, Juventus and Ajax. However, he decided to join Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb. During his time in Zagreb, he became the youngest ever scorer in Croatia’s top league and he played his part in two double winning seasons and while winning the Croatian Football Hope of the Year Award which was previously won by Luka Modric.
In January 2013, Inter Milan had decided to gamble on cashing in on the experienced Wesley Sneijder and talented Philippe Coutinho. They decided to replace them with an 18 year old prospect, Mateo Kovačić. He made his debut for Inter 3 days after signing when he came on as a halftime substitute. He went on to play 13 times in Serie A in his first season and although it was a disappointing season for Inter – finishing in 9th – Mateo was given the Gentleman Revelation of the Year award by the Inter fans. In his 2nd season at Inter, he had a new manager in Walter Mazzarri. In 32 league matches that he played for Inter in Serie A, he was in the starting line-up just 14 times, only having a chance to play the whole 90 minutes just 8 times. However, on May 10th he played in Javier Zanetti’s last game for Inter where he made 3 assists in a 4-1 win against Lazio. So far in 2014-15 Kovačić has played 18 times scoring 5 goals and making 2 assists. Walter Mazzarri was sacked by Inter in November and replaced with Roberto Mancini who previously had a successful spell at Inter.
Since moving to Italy, Kovačić had more often than not been played in a position which was not natural to him. He was a trequartista, an attacking playmaker who was allowed to roam and link between the striker and midfield. Lately he has been played as a regista or deep-lying playmaker and he has taken to it like a duck to water. Andrea Pirlo is one of the best when you think of players who have successfully transitioned from treguartista to regista and when you look at it, Kovačić is not too dissimilar to the classy Italian. Giovanni Trapattoni – the Italian football manager considered the most successful club coach in the history of Serie A has described Mateo as a mix between Kaka and Seedorf.
Mateo is a very well rounded midfielder and this has aided him a lot in his transition from a more advanced position to a deeper position on the field. While he is and always has been a playmaker first and foremost, he can carry the ball fantastically, intercept play and make tackles. He enjoys picking the ball up in deeper areas and driving forward through midfield to play one of his attackers in on goal.
Dribbling – Mateo Kovačić’s ability to dribble with the ball at speed is fantastic and I’m sure he picked up some tips from Javier Zanetti while he was still playing for Inter. Kovačić can strike fear into any midfielder or defender when he picks the ball up and starts driving at them with great control, touch and strength on the ball. It is a big advantage for a midfielder to be able to do this and can open up a lot of space and make opportunities for shots on goal or simple through-balls to the attackers. At the time of writing, Mateo has an impressive ‘successful take on’ percentage of 66.20% with 3.4 dribbles per game in Serie A.
Passing – Kovačić is technically very good – and he needs to be – in order to succeed as a deep-lying playmaker. He has proven his ability to dictate the tempo of games; spray long and short passes around the pitch; and create goal scoring chances for his teammates. So far this season (up until his last game vs Udinese) Mateo averages 58.5 passes per game, with 2.1 key passes per game and a pass completion percentage of 86%. So far this season he has made 481 forward passes (in comparison Gerrard has made 509 forward passes and has played one more game than Mateo this year).
Composure – Again, this links to his passing. Kovačić is very calm and assured on the ball for someone so young. He is always composed on the ball which helps him control the game immensely and find his teammates with a pass more often than not. His composure gives him the ability to pick the right pass and ‘time it well’ rather than rushing.
Reading of the game – For such a young player he has a very good understanding and reading of the game. He judges situations well and this will only improve with time and experience.
Heading – The main weakness of his game is winning headers, however it is common with players of his type and shouldn’t really affect him too much. It is something to work on however.
Shooting – Perhaps not so much a weakness but an area of inconsistency, much like Coutinho. Kovačić is a player with very good technical ability and can strike a ball brilliantly so he should be more consistent with his shots and test keepers more. Again an area to work on.
Kovačić is undoubtedly one of Inter’s best and most talented players and certainly someone they don’t want to let go of easily. He is thriving in a team that is not up to the standards of Inter teams of the past. Mazzarri, Inter’s manager before Mancini said “Mateo has similar potential (to Hamsik) and I hope that if we can make the right adjustments – for example when attacking and getting shots in on goal – he can become very similar to Marek. I have great belief in the boy. He’s very young and he’s got plenty of room for improvement. He always listens and is very determined.” It remains to be seen how Mancini uses him longer term and how Kovačić progresses at Inter.
Going forward Kovačić can really be anything he wants to be in midfield, while he is succeeding as a regista, I still see him more effective further forward and this is great for Kovačić and his team as it shows not just his versatility but the size of his skill set. For example if LFC were to get Kovačić he could be played as the deepest midfielder in a diamond, on the sides of a diamond or midfield 3 or at the tip of a diamond in the number 10.
Kovačić’s talent and potential is frightening, he can really become one of the very best in Europe and become not just Croatia’s star man but the star man of a top club.
I’ll end with this quote from the legend Javier Zanetti on Kovačić when he was 19: “With the exception of Ronaldo, who arrived here when he was 21, yes. Mateo is the most promising. He “exploded” in what was a very difficult season for us. He has enormous skills; now he just has to confirm that potential, to grow up.”