The Croatian midfielder underwhelmed during his first season in the Premier League but now feels at home at Stamford Bridge
Mateo Kovacic is slowly but surely recovering his attacking verve and silencing the doubters.
There may still be a lack of end product but Frank Lampard has removed the shackles that held the Croatian back under Maurizio Sarri last season.
Kovacic was often found on the bench at Real Madrid before his move to Stamford Bridge, failing to deliver on the initial promise he showed at Dinamo Zagreb and Inter.
The midfielder also regularly underwhelmed at Chelsea in 2018-19 but some good fortune has provided him with the platform he needed to finally start proving himself a top player.
Firstly, there was the transfer ban that prevented the Blues from signing any players during the summer, thus making the decision to turn Kovacic’s loan move into a permanent deal something of a no-brainer.
Secondly, the appointment of Lampard as Chelsea’s new boss has also proven pivotal. Sarri may have sanctioned Kovacic’s move to west London but it is Lampard who has set him free.
The legendary Blues midfielder has afforded the Croatia international more creative freedom, allowing him to make more dribbles (up to 4.4 per game in the Premier League from 3.2 under Sarri).
However, it must also be acknowledged that Kovacic has also benefited from the fact that N’Golo Kante has had his injury issues this season, thus affording the 25-year-old more game time.
The way in which Kovacic has responded to the extra responsibility, though, has helped him win over the fans.
Indeed, just like Jorginho, whom he has flourished playing alongside, Kovacic’s stock has risen dramatically among supporters this season.
The pair have forged an excellent partnership in the Blues engine room, turning in excellent displays against the likes of Ajax, Burnley and Watford.
Indeed, Chelsea crowned him the man of the match in Saturday’s win at Vicarage Road, where he made a season-high 134 passes during the 90 minutes.
This comes as Lampard looks for more direct play to bring an end to Sarri’s possession-focused philosophy, which is why Kovacic is also playing more long balls forward (5.9 per game, up from two per game last term).
The former Dinamo starlet is revelling in the change of style but also says he is reaping the benefits of feeling like Chelsea is now his home.
“Last year was only a loan,” he has previously pointed out. “I feel better and more confident than last year.
“It makes me feel more relaxed as last year was difficult and I needed to prove myself. Last year was also good, not perfect.
“This year, though, I have started well and I hope to continue like that. I am missing some parts of my game and I can improve and get better, but I think it will come for sure.
“Lampard gives me more freedom and I can take the ball and go forward. I feel good. I have a good connection with the coach and all of the team.”
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The feeling is certainly mutual, with Lampard a big fan of Kovacic’s versatility and, in particular, his dribbling skills.
“We can’t be too rigid in our positions and too predictable,” the former England international has explained. “I’m fortunate enough to have players that can perform nearly every role in midfield. I’m very happy for them to be quite fluid in how they play.
“I also want them to be positive in their play and play forward passes, or go by people if that’s one of their attributes. And Mateo certainly has that ability to travel with the ball at pace.”
Despite his attacking attributes, Kovacic is not likely to be a final-third player under Lampard.
He will continue to sit deep and instead use his talents on the ball to carry the ball forward when he can. He will not be asked to regularly arrive in the box, which could obviously prolong his infamous run of almost three years without a goal.
However, he has, at least, ended one unwanted streak by finally delivering an assist, in the league game against Norwich City in August.
Of course, Kante’s return from injury is now imminent and Lampard is excited to have arguably his best player back, even if Chelsea’s excellent run of form is testament to how well Kovacic has covered for the World Cup winner.
“N’Golo coming back is huge for us,” the Blues boss admitted. “He’s one of the best midfielders in the world and has been for a few seasons, so I won’t complain about the nice problem that I have with him fit. I want competition for places.
“We’re playing every three or four days at the minute so I’m going to need all of them and in different positions as well.”
Including Mason Mount and Ross Barkley, Chelsea now can boast huge depth in midfield, meaning additions to that area of the squad are no longer a priority.
The end of Chelsea’s transfer ban could well be close, with the appeal date with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) set for November 20, but it feels like Lampard is likely to focus on other areas of the pitch to bolster if he gets the all clear to sign players in 2020.
That represents another illustration of just how well Kovacic has stepped up to the mark this season.
After scoring on his professional debut in his native Croatia at the age of 16, he was immediately tipped to become a world-class player. He is still trying to prove himself nine years on.
However, Kovacic finally looks at home again at Lampard’s Chelsea, meaning the former wonder-kid might be belatedly set to realise his full potential.