When news broke Sunday that Real Madrid was set to swoop in for Inter Milan's Croatian wonderkid Mateo Kovacic, I met the report with a mixture of excitement and confusion. As a supporter of the Croatian national team, any Croat addition to this club gets a thumbs-up(!) from me, but from a player and roster perspective I was unsure as to why this move would make sense. Kovacic is undoubtedly talented, watch five minutes of his play and you'll see why he's one of the world's gems, but those arguing that he'll just slot in at Real Madrid as Luka Modric v2.0 need to pump their brakes a bit before watching too many YouTube montages and getting carried away.
From watching Kovacic, the first impression one often gets is how skilled of a dribbler he is. He completes 2.6 dribbles per game winning over 65 percent of his take-ons, for comparison's sake Real Madrid's own dribble master Isco completes the same amount of dribbles per game but at a 57 percent success rate. Additionally, he is very adept at drawing fouls as 67 percent of foul calls go in his favor, a handy skill to have with some of the free kick specialists residing in this team. His dribbling also ties into his passing game, once he beats his man his an incredibly efficient passer with an 87.5 percent pass success rate this past season. He's not much of a crosser or long-ball specialist but his short passes in tight spaces are something to be admired and would fit in nicely in the final third. Kovacic is not an Ozil-type creating nonstop chances for others, but he's still still a very good distributor with 1.8 key passes per game this past season and that number would likely only rise with better teammates around him.
Versatility is also a big part of Kovacic's game. From a 10 to an 8 to a 6, sometimes even out wide, Kovacic has played in a number of roles in a number of systems over the past few years but he's at his best when he sits a bit deeper in the midfield and can dictate play either through his vision or his prodigious dribbling. It would be good to pair him with more of a destroyer type when asking him to play a more controlled game from deep but ideally, he'll have the freedom to roam around from box to box in order to make his impact known.
Despite his physical limitations, Kovacic will still put in a decent defensive shift having put up decent defensive numbers for whatever they're worth (hint: not that much). However, if fans think he's the new DM for this team they should think again, he's much better used as someone receiving the ball and running with it than as someone with the duty to win it back. Some have said he plays like Andres Iniesta, others say more like Andrea Pirlo and the inevitable Modric comparison is there too but he's really more like a combination of all three, though obviously not on their best level yet.
Size, size, size. At 5'11 and roughly 175 pounds, Kovacic won't be winning anything close to half of his defensive duels. He's the same height as Modric and Isco and weighs little more. For years Real Madrid fans would take shots at the size of Barcelona's midfield while Madrid trotted out players like Sami Khedira but now that same size criticism could be turned around and used against Madrid as they're focusing on adding technically skilled, but slight of frame, midfielders.
How does that translate into gameplay? Well, Kovacic wins one third of an aerial duel per game at a 31 percent success rate. If he is tasked with being one of the protectors of the back line, as some imagine him doing, it wouldn't take a genius to see how his inclusion could leave Real Madrid vulnerable in the air. He'll likely be able to negate this deficiency with his offensive output but clubs like Atleti could easily bully him off the ball both on the ground and in the air.
Kovacic isn't much of a scorer either. Perhaps this shouldn't be used against him given the turmoil over the systems he was playing in and given that he wasn't really the furthest forward midfielder. However, his shooting is fairly poor as only 30 percent of his shots this past season were even on target with this likely being due to his love of taking shots from distance instead of looking for more optimal danger zones to attack. He converted 18.5 percent of them for goals and a tally of five for the season, but his goal output won't be winning him any minutes any time soon, he'll likely be playing due to his creation for others and his carrying skills.
Speaking of his dribbling, like most high-usage dribblers there is the risk that he'll lose the ball in a dangerous spot and leave himself and the team defensively exposed. For all his skill, there have been tendencies to over-dribble instead of making the smart move. Often players like this get a free pass due to the potential for something special to happen but this team already suffers from too much individuality at times rather than cohesive team play. Additionally, he has come under fire in the past for his work rate and off the ball positioning, both on offense and defense. It's something to keep an eye on.
Buying Kovacic, a player many consider to be one of the three best young midfielders along with Marco Verratti and Paul Pogba, for approximately €30-35 million is generally a smart move 9/10 times. However, given this club's glut of talented 10-types, lack of patience with developing CMs and immense pressure, it's not unfair to question the wisdom of this move. Kovacic certainly has many of the attributes (dribbling, pace, vision) to follow in his compatriot's shoes but will he get the necessary minutes to develop as such a player is the question. An argument has been made that Rafa Benitez will rotate much more heavily than Carlo Ancelotti did but if we're being realistic, how much could he possibly rotate the quality of players like he's never had before, especially when the pressure to play his best 11 and win big is there every single match. That's why there are so many doubts over this move.
If this move goes through, Real Madrid will be adding yet another wonderkid to its stable and for a pretty decent price, but if it comes at the expense of driving out a positionally-sound and defensive-minded midfielder like Asier Illarramendi (for all his faults) or even Isco should he see his minutes decrease (not to mention this probably being the last roadblock in getting Paul Pogba like many wanted), then this will be yet another move open to a bevy of questions and criticisms. This team could use another box-to-box type of creative midfielder off the bench but ideally it would be someone who can also add a bit of a defensive and physical presence, not someone who'll add to a slightly concerning trend of diminutive midfield maestros in an increasingly more physical league. I don't have doubts about his talent and potential, I have doubts about the diversification of this midfield and squad as a whole and if his addition will add anything substantially new. Time will tell how it plays out.