Croatian star flourishing under new boss

Thomas Tuchel’s appointment as Chelsea’s new boss has been a blessing to Mateo Kovacic. The Croatian star was often out of favour under Frank Lampard however, Tuchel’s arrival at Stamford Bridge has seen Kovacic establish himself as a key player.

Kovacic has often split opinion amongst Chelsea supporters. Despite exceptional technical qualities, his lack of goal contributions leave many questioning his worth. Additionally, he is not a traditional defensive midfielder and so many ask what Kovacic actually does.

Tuchel’s immediate impact at Chelsea has been evident. Chelsea’s Croatian star has been the most improved player in the five league games since the German took charge. What has Tuchel done to maximise Kovacic’s quality? How does Kovacic move to the next level in his performance?

System change – playing in a two-man midfield

Where Lampard’s 4-3-3 highlighted Kovacic’s inadequacies, Tuchel’s switch to a two-man pivot in midfield suits the Croatian. Neither an advanced #8 as Lampard used, nor a #6 in the mould of N’Golo Kante, Kovacic was a square peg in a round hole for Lampard’s preferred system.

VALENCIA, SPAIN – NOVEMBER 27: Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea celebrates after scoring his team’s first goal during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Valencia CF and Chelsea FC at Estadio Mestalla on November 27, 2019 in Valencia, Spain. (PHOTO BY MANUEL QUEIMADELOS ALONSO/GETTY IMAGES)

Kovacic’s best work under Lampard came in the winter months of 2018/19, where he played in a midfield two alongside Jorginho. This has been replicated under Tuchel. With less emphasis on goal contribution from midfield, the £40m man’s key skills are more prominent.

Alongside Jorginho, the technically astute pairing have been able to control the game with efficient use of the ball. Against Newcastle, both players had a pass completion of over 90% whilst having over 100 touches.

Kovacic, in particular, was phenomenal against Steve Bruce’s side. Eight dribbles and two key passes, along with three dribbles, highlight a midfield display containing multiple facets. The Croatian star controlled midfield and allowed Chelsea to assert their dominance in the game.

Playing alongside Jorginho, a more positional player, in a two-man midfield setup, allows Kovacic to roam, dribble and link defence and attack. With five more attack-minded players in the team, there is less emphasis on Kovacic to deliver goals or assists. This system has, so far, masked his weaknesses and enabled his ball retention and industry to prosper.

What next for Kovacic?

The Croatian star has been excellent so far under Tuchel. He is playing the best football of his Chelsea career.

However, adding an extra creative element would take Kovacic to another level in Tuchel’s midfield. Whether that be with penetrative passes through the lines, or out-and-out through balls, Kovacic would benefit from executing riskier passes.

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 18: Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea in action during the FA Cup Fifth Round match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 18, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (PHOTO BY MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES)

One goal in 82 Premier League appearances is a poor return for a midfield player who has often been tasked with supporting the attack. For a player of his pedigree and quality, Kovacic needs to add final-third product to consolidate himself as an elite midfielder, since he isn’t a specialist defensive midfielder.

Perfect in a two-man midfield, the Croatian star needs to become more adaptable and improve his skills to become an adept three-man midfielder. While Tuchel is tactically adept and will maximise strengths, adding an extra string to his bow will make Kovacic an exceptional player rather than a useful one within the right setup. In the five league games since Tuchel took charge, Kovacic has mustered eight shots with zero goals, highlighting a clear area for improvement in his game.

What next for Chelsea’s midfield?

With Jorginho and Kovacic impressing, N’Golo Kante faces an uphill battle to regain his place in the starting XI. Only Sheffield United, with heavy pressing, have nullified the impact of Jorginho and Kovacic thus far since Tuchel took charge.

Chelsea’s upcoming fixture list is much more challenging than that of recent weeks. Against teams of higher technical quality and more attacking intent, the “Jovacic” midfield axis is likely to be tested to their physical limit. While there are no doubts about their technical qualities, their physical and defensive capabilities are yet to be tested in Tuchel’s three-at-the-back system.

With more difficult fixtures to come, Mateo Kovacic is likely to be an important player for Chelsea. His experience in big European matches needs to come to the fore. Chelsea’s Player of the Year in 2019/20 has experienced important games throughout his career. He is likely to be a player that Thomas Tuchel relies upon.

What cannot be argued, however, is that Chelsea’s Croatian star is flourishing under his new coach. If he can replicate his current form for the rest of the season, Chelsea will control football matches. He has been terrific in the last six weeks and fans and player alike will be desperate for this to continue. If it does, then the questions surrounding Kovacic’s functionality and worth will disappear very quickly.

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