These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Five years ago, Dinamo Zagreb were building a team around two auspicious young phenoms -- Mateo Kovacic and Alen Halilovic. It was short-lived — even at at a club like Zagreb that was always going to cash in on top talents. Just one year into the Kovacic - Halilovic reign, the former was prematurely sold to an alert Inter side ready to take a gamble on a box-to-box predator. Since then, Halilovic and Kovacic have gone their separate ways -- Kovacic carving out his path in the world’s best club that’s deeply stocked at his position, and Halilovic dropping into Gran Canaria as a journeyman yet to find a home.
Halilovic may have broken Kovacic’s record as the youngest goalscorer in Croatian football league history, but as years pass, the discrepancy in talent, footballing IQ, and pure efficiency on the pitch between the two, have become clear-cut. Kovacic is now navigating his way into Croatia’s most exciting young talent.
When Kovacic signed for Real Madrid, Halilovic recognized the central midfield shift from Catalunya to Madrid. Mateo — a draftee who impressed in black-and-blue, taking over from Wesley Sneijder’s #10 admirably — was joining the heaviest midfield artillery on earth. He would’ve been a great signing for Barcelona, who are still treading water in the post-Xavi era with rickety role players like Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez.
"I don't know why Barça didn't sign Kovacic,” Halilovic said in 2015. “He's really, really good. He's a player with a really bright future.”
Real Madrid are not foreign to incorporating Croatian talents into their team. Kovacic is the fifth Croat to don the white shirt, following a line of players since 1990. Chronologically: Robert Prosinecki (an expensive signing in the Cacic era in the early 90s, who, had his Real Madrid career torpedoed by injuries), Davor Suker (World Cup 98’s top-scorer, future corrupt Croatian Football President), Robert Jarni (FIFA 98 reserve player that never made an appearance on my Nintendo 64), and the unparalleled Luka Modric.
Prosinecki was really good, by the way, even if his Real Madrid career hadn’t unfolded ideally. When Kovacic emerged on the scene in 2011, then Croatian U-17 head-coach Martin Novoselac said Mateo was the most talented Croatian player he’d seen since Prosinecki.
Kovacic has a unique style of play, making it onerous for us to draw parallels for him. But Prosinecki comes close. Aesthetically, they’re not clones; but like Kovacic, Prosinecki was an elite ball-carrier capable of carving through 40 yards of grass and unnerving back-peddling defenders.
Prosinecki and Kovacic both are (were) high-adrenaline players; but Mateo’s mentor is the serene Luka Modric -- the cold-blooded artist who slows down time to implement his will on the game. On the pitch, Kovacic is lauded as Modric’s heir, but they have little in common stylistically. Off the pitch, the bond between the two is unmistakable.
Real Madrid really drew this up masterfully, assuming Kovacic keeps developing the way he is. In Modric, they acquired a player ultimately destined to enter all-time-XI discussion. He has yet to age, but his character, coupled with Kovacic’s humble talent, is a perfect gig for all parties involved. Real Madrid’s succession plan in midfield is straight out of the Football 101 Modus Operandi.
Modric has always been open to grooming Kovacic, even going so far as proclaiming Kova as his rightful heir. When the time comes, Modric will take a backseat. The two have a mutual respect for each other.
Last season, when Modric went down injured, Kovacic stepped in masterfully as a box-to-box general alongside Toni Kroos — and ditto when he filled in alongside Modric for the injured Kroos. Kovacic was cutting off passing lanes, thieving possession high up the pitch, and playing in slick passes through slender channels that opposing defenders had assumed were zipped up.
It’s easy to spew the accolades of Isco and Marcelo — two backbreaking creators that defensive schemes can’t plan for; but we rarely talk about Kovacic’s scheme-crumbling ability as a ball-courier.
Kovacic attributes a lot of his confidence to Modric’s mentorship. "I visited Modric after his injury and he told me I was ready to take on the responsibility,” Kovacic said during Modric’s injury last season. “The hardest part is replacing Modric, because he does things that are extremely hard to do in football". A year prior, Kovacic said that Modric “did a lot” to get him here.
Luka believes Mateo is a future Balon D’or winner. There is grounds to this statement -- it’s not just smoke or biased love. Everyone who’s been around Kovacic day-in and day-out is swayed by his delicate technique, combative effort, and humble — yet confident — drive.
When Kovacic signed for Inter, after a surprise phone call from his agent which reportedly proclaimed: “Pack your bags, you’re going to Inter”, Croatian footballing legend Zvonimir Boban knew the Nerazzuri had made the right move.
“The player has talents that could make him even better than me. He is an incredibly serious professional for someone his age. Kovačić is a complete player. He is not a born regista but he is playing there now. He is a complete talent that can still grow – he has incredible potential.”
Around that time, people were still figuring out what kind of player Kovacic was. Prosinecki was akin; but even still, Kova was carving his own path. He’s a central midfielder, yet, different from Modric, Kroos, Iniesta, or Xavi. He’s versatile, much like Dani Ceballos; though he needs to be in the right scheme. As a lone anchor, he suffers; but surround him with defensive help in the middle, and he’ll excel as a watchful shield and adhesive force for his teammates. We now often look at some of the younger players like Aleix Febas and see traces of Kovacic’s style trickle down to the new generation. We are not witnessing the next Modric here, instead, we are witnessing the arrival of Mateo Kovacic — a new breed of footballer who covers multiple positions.
Former Inter manager Giovanni Trapattoni once compared Kovacic to a ‘raging bull’ rather than any particular player, although, he also clarified his point:
“He isn’t a director like [Andrea] Pirlo. Given Kovacic’s style of play and his technical characteristics he’s more of a mix of Kaka and Seedorf. Kovačić tends to dribble, has a lot of technique and great acceleration. He’s a class player and I think his skills should be exploited to the best.”
Somehow, somewhere, the Croatian media even compared him to Lionel Messi.
Kovacic didn’t go through the same war-torn struggle that his mentor Luka Modric did, but he went down his own path of struggles. At the age of 13, despite having interest from clubs like Bayern, Juve, Inter, and Ajax; his family opted to move him to Zagreb. Two years later, he broke his leg and had to endure a long path to recovery. The stepping stones he’s taken en route to the Bernabeu require an extra dose of mental persistence. For Kovacic, it’s still surreal.
Mateo recalls responding to his agents phone call about the Inter deal: “I said ‘Seriously?’ It was like a dream for me, and I can’t really describe what I feel at the moment”.
Kovacic is just 23 — yet to enter his prime. He is surrounded by mentors and young competitors breathing down his neck. This is going to be a fun season for Madridistas — just to see how the depth chart unfolds in central midfield if nothing else. Get a good seat on the Kovacic train, folks. We are still in the early stages of his exciting journey, and it promises to be a renowned ride.