In the upper reaches of Chelsea’s East Stand, where the atmosphere thins in more ways than one, something was puzzling the punters peering down on the game below. “Is that Hazard? Or Kovacic?”
From 50m high it is hard to tell the difference. In part it’s down to their matching stubble, crew cut and perfectly chiselled skull, but mostly it’s down to the way they move: gliding rather than running, a magnetic touch, legs which whir, and a prominent backside deployed as a kind of battering ram against defenders who get too close.
Kovacic’s average position against Liverpool was almost identical to Hazard’s, the two dovetailing on the left side in what is beginning to look like the most threatening flank in the Premier League, supported by Marcos Alonso galloping downfield, mane flailing. And on Saturday, as Kovacic took a touch in the centre circle, played a fast one-two with Jorginho and picked out Hazard’s run to create the opening goal, it was tempting to wonder whether the 24-year-old on loan from Real Madrid might turn out to be the signing of the season.
One of the familiar criticisms levelled at Kovacic over his early career was that he had no conventional position, but in Maurizio Sarri he has found an unconventional coach. Sarri’s left-back shoots more than his midfielders, his centre-backs play raking throughballs, his strikers stalk and intercept. This is a manager who, on taking charge of the best defensive midfielder on the planet, immediately played him at No8. Under Sarri there are no fixed positions so much as spaces to play football, and the qualities he demands – one-touch passing, direct dribbling, hard pressing, astute positioning – are all elements Kovacic has in abundance.
It is tempting to make the comparison with Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva, the outstanding players in a midfield-three last season, but Kovacic is different. For one, he is not a goalscorer; he has more career cards than career goals and in 73 La Liga appearances he scored only once. Instead he embodies the modern phenomenon of the deep-lying dribbler, like Frenkie de Jong, the Dutch teenage sensation whose driving runs from deep have gone viral. Elite youth coaching is shifting away from passing towards dribbling and so perhaps in Kovacic we are looking at a prototype footballer, the technical mobile player who in the coming years will be deployed not to distribute but to drive.
It is worth remembering the potential downside of a loan switch like Kovacic’s. Chelsea’s unique ability to regenerate into title challengers every couple of years or so – and when they put on a serious title challenge, they normally win it – relies on importing new talent to suit a new coach, and the consequence is that while Kovacic is establishing himself, a homegrown player like Ruben Loftus-Cheek remains on the fringes. Loftus-Cheek is likely to play against Hungarian side Videoton in the Europe League this week, but that is not enough for his development and he will surely seek another loan move in January. For Chelsea, developing talent for Real Madrid delivers short-term gain but has long-term ramifications.
That is not Kovacic’s fault, of course. He moved to Chelsea primarily because of the manager, because he thought he could fit into Sarri’s plans. “It was important that after three years of inconsistency in playing time in Madrid I’ve got into a team that wants me and a coach that wants and trust me,” he said on arrival at the end of August. “That’s how Chelsea happened. That’s what I really need now.”
That is exactly what he’s got at Stamford Bridge and it’s possible that this season will be the making of Kovacic. In the search to unlock his potential he has drifted from a flighty teenage winger at Dinamo Zagreb to Wesley Sneijder’s successor as Inter Milan’s No10, to a bit-part job at Real Madrid. Now, wearing Hazard’s old No17 shirt, he has slotted in almost incognito at Chelsea, under a manager who seems to have solved the puzzle of Kovacic.