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Mateo Kovacic’s transformation from Sarri to Frank

When Chelsea agreed to pay £40 million for Kovacic at the end of the 2018-19 season, after a disappointing loan spell, many questions w...

When Chelsea agreed to pay £40 million for Kovacic at the end of the 2018-19 season, after a disappointing loan spell, many questions were asked as he hadn’t managed to win over the Chelsea faithful. Many suggested it was a panic buy, as Chelsea were of course to begin the season reprimanded by a transfer ban for the season.

Kovacic last season under Sarri featured regularly, in 32 of the 38 Premier League matches, registering 2 assists and failing to score. It was these measly statistics which earned him a tarnished reputation, thus evoking the doubt over why Chelsea splashed out £40 million to secure him on a five-year contract.

Furthermore, Sarri’s unpopularity at the Bridge perhaps didn’t help Kovacic’s reputation. Kovacic and Barkley were Sarri’s most common substitution, an in-game rotation he made 22 times in all competitions. Chelsea fans had simply grown tired of the loathsome predictability in Sarri's changes and his stubbornness.

However, fast forward to now, at the abrupt closure of Lampard’s first campaign as Chelsea manager, and the feeling around Kovacic has changed dramatically.

After February’s crushing 3-0 home defeat to Bayern, Lampard sent a strong message to his players, but singled out one man worthy of praise: “They need to understand the levels that the Champions League is when they get to the knockout stage… I thought there were a couple of performances in our team, namely Kovacic, who played with a personality and a quality that makes you go: 'Okay, he can play in pretty much any team with that level'.”

Playing the full 90 minutes, Kovacic completed 89 percent of his passes, attempted a game-high eight dribbles and won an impressive five tackles. Against arguably the best and certainly one of the most experienced opposition the young Blues side has faced all season Kovacic stood out.

Kovacic has spoken about his time under Sarri and has confessed Sarri’s training was “monotonous”, lamenting the predictability in the Italian's philosophy. Kovacic said: “I play with the ball a lot more and have greater freedom of movement (under Lampard) – that’s why I think I’ve put in some great performances this season.

“Last year I was tied to a specific area, which became a bit predictable for our opponents and therefore made it harder for me.”

Kovacic’s neat link-up play, silky touches and ability to move in tight spaces and quickly turn defense into attack, driving with the ball, is what has earned him his plaudits. Kovacic’s assist away at the Etihad for N’golo Kante’s goal in our unfortunate 2-1 defeat- a game which we dominated for large periods- was a prime example of Kovacic’s intricate link-up play. While being pressed by Aguero, de Bruyne and Mahrez, Kovacic, and Jorginho combined well to beat the press, before Kovacic spots the early run from Kante and picks him out with a perfectly weighted dink, and the Frenchman finishes past Ederson.

His performances don’t steal the headlines, however, his steely dynamism on the ball, and without the ball, meaning his playing style very much so is suited to the Premier League. As the image above displays, only Kevin de Bruyne and Aston Villa’s John McGinn drive in possession more than Chelsea’s Croatian maestro.

This season Kovacic featured prominently, in 25 of the 29 Premier League matches, contributing 3 assists and one goal in the league in a disappointing away performance at Goodison Park in December- yet again just as with the Bayern defeat Kovacic was the only positive in a dismal performance from the Blues, he was constantly scrapping away and winning his personal midfield battles. As demonstrated here, bullying Everton midfield talisman off the ball.

Kovacic also bagged in the Champions League away at Valencia, his tally for the season, therefore, a modest 2. 

With the Croatian midfielder only being 25 and having him pinned down on a five-year contract, it’s very positive for Chelsea that the best is yet to come from Kovacic. Moreover, next season, and the remainder of this, (whatever is to happen this season), Chelsea are going to be blessed with fierce but healthy competition for places; with Kovacic, Jorginho, Kante, Barkley, Mount, Loftus-Cheek and Billy Gilmour all looking to stamp their authority and prove their worth for the starting eleven.

Written by: Bruno Brown
Twitter: @Bruno14Brown

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