Mateo Kovacic is one of those players who always seems to be operating in only second or third gear.
That’s not a dig at his performances this season – the Croatian international has been fantastic since his loan arrival from Real Madrid, completing a trio alongside N’Golo Kante and Jorginho that has left Chelsea with a midfield capable of rivalling any other in the Premier League.
But the feeling persists that a player of Kovacic’s quality could be giving more to the team, or at the very least could be far more direct with his contributions. Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool saw the 24-year-old notch up his first piece of output of the campaign, an assist for Eden Hazard’s opening goal that required cleverness, technique and precision.
Yet, for a midfielder who has completed 94% of his Premier League passes this term, and even pushed that rate up to an incredible 98% on Saturday, you have to wonder whether Kovacic’s impact should be greater.
Three tackles represents a ninety minutes of solid work-rate, but for all of the 48-cap star’s technical mastery, it only translated into two efforts at goal – just one of which tested Alisson – and that single key pass, which Hazard duly converted into an assist.
That’s partly a consequence of Maurizio Sarri’s philosophy, which implores his midfielders to play as many passes as possible in central areas.
But considering how much of the ball he’s already seen this term and how naturally talented he is, one assist is a modest return for six Premier League outings – especially as that assist still required a blistering run and perfect finish from Hazard. It was a great pass through Liverpool’s defence, but still left Hazard with much to do.
Once again, in terms of build-up play Kovacic has been nothing short of breath-taking this season, giving Jorginho a vital partner in possession to bounce off, but he’s capable of doing so much more in and around the final third.
If this is Kovacic in second or third gear, imagine the kind of damage he could cause at full speed, taking the game to the opposition rather than simply looking to link up play with pretty passes.
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