This time last year the jury was very in much out on Mateo Kovacic’s time at Stamford Bridge.
The Croatian, although showing glimpses of his potential and being well regarded for his aesthetically pleasing technique, was questioned over his actual impact on the team.
Coming into his peak years and with the desire to see fresh legs injected into the squad, Kovacic’s place felt less secure than that of N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, who both started the Champions League final.
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Chelsea’s only midfield addition in the summer was Saul Niguez. This deadline day loan has failed to improve Thomas Tuchel’s options, and with Ruben Loftus-Cheek still remaining a sporadic presence, Kovacic needed to step up.
Even if the need for midfield reinforcement remains, Kovacic should be regarded as Chelsea’s most improved player for the 2021/22 campaign.
The main leap forward has been the sense of a switch between style and substance. No longer do we see Kovacic dribble round in circles before laying the ball back to a teammate from where he started.
There has been a greater sense of urgency when receiving the ball this season, looking for a quick pass to progress Chelsea’s play or the opportunity to burst forward.
In an area that has been blighted by injury and fatigue over a taxing season, nearly all of the energy injected consistently has come from Kovacic, who himself had to contend with injury setbacks before and after Christmas.
The raw numbers of goals and assists show an improvement compared to his three previous seasons, and his stunning volley against Liverpool should win the club’s goal of the season.
His presence in both finals against Liverpool proved key to breaking the Reds’ intense press and opening up space for others. In the FA Cup Final playing with a swollen ankle for 70 minutes before having to come off.
It was before the clash with his old club Real Madrid in April when Thomas Tuchel labeled Kovacic a “wonderkid”
“He looks like a wonderkid in training in some exercises. On Tuesday, he had an outstanding training session and is a fantastic character. A lovely guy, a humble guy, and so interested in sports. He’s so happy to train and deliver for the team .It’s a true pleasure.
“Even at Real Madrid, I was aware of his talent, and I felt there was a next step coming, ‘he added.’ I’m very happy that he’s my player and plays a lot this season. He is crucial to us on the pitch and off the pitch in the way he behaves. “
It was of frustration to fans that after these words, Kovacic would not start the first leg, that Chelsea would lose 3-1. He would start the second, providing energy in one of the Blues’ best displays under Tuchel at the Bernabeu.
In the minds of supporters who have had doubts about Kovacic in recent years, you would be hard-pressed to find many who would quickly dispense of him for next season. Whilst the conversation around Jorginho is swaying more towards a farewell this summer.
Both players have at times been coupled together, arriving in the same summer under Maurizio Sarri and criticized at times for their lack of productivity and physicality in the center of the park.
But Kovacic has proven himself a trustworthy player to withhold, one who, in a summer of uncertainty, can hopefully maintain a lot of the good work done under Tuchel since January 2021.