Greg Lea charts the rise of Inter's Mateo Kovacic, who's excelling in Serie A and on course for glory...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: May 6, 1994
- Place of birth: Linz, Austria
- Height: 5ft 11in
- Position: Attacking midfielder
- Current club: Inter (74 apps, 7 goals)
- Former club: Dinamo Zagreb
- International: Croatia (19 apps, 0 goal)
Despite representing Croatia from Under-14 to senior level, Kovačić was born in the Austrian city of Linz to Bosnian-Croat emigrants. At 13, he attracted the interest of Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich but opted to join Dinamo Zagreb's academy. A nasty leg break threatened to derail his progress there, but he made a full recovery and the Croatian giants handed him his debut, aged 16, in 2010. Over the next three seasons he pulled on the club’s shirt 43 times, helping the Blues to consecutive league titles and their first appearance in the Champions League group stage for 12 years.
His superb form didn't go unnoticed across Europe, and Inter parted with €15 million to capture him in January 2013. He was immediately handed the prestigious No.10 shirt recently vacated by Wesley Sneijder, a sign of the faith Inter's hierarchy showed in him. By the end of that campaign his place in the starting line-up was guaranteed, and Kovačić was awarded the Revelation of the Year award by the club’s supporters.
Last season was a challenging one at times for Kovačić, who was often left out of Walter Mazzarri’s starting XI. Indeed, the Croatian completed 90 minutes just eight times, and was often left on the bench for key games. That experience may help him in the long-term, though, and he has become an essential member of Inter’s team in 2014/15.
Why you need to know him
Kovačić is “a mixture of Kaka and Clarence Seedorf” according to Italian legend Giovanni Trapattoni. The young midfielder has been linked with moves to Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona and Real Madrid in recent months, and has been one of the few plus points for Inter in a disappointing season so far.
International midfield team-mates Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić are now considered to be among the best in Europe, and Kovačić has the talent to follow in their footsteps over the next few years.
Although usually deployed behind the striker(s), the 20-year-old is also capable of playing a deeper central midfield role. He is both creative and energetic, an excellent passer and dribbler, and more tenacious and gritty than his small frame would suggest.
Kovačić is very much a modern attacking midfielder: he doesn't just stand in a 10-yard zone of space and wait for the ball to be delivered to him, but drops deep to collect it, moves wide to create overloads and is willing to get back behind the line of the ball in the defensive phase.
He is a wonderfully creative hub, laying on numerous chances for team-mates with his superb distribution and defence-splitting through-balls. Kovačić is also a fine dribbler with brilliant acceleration that helps him get away from opponents, and is also a very intelligent player capable of varying his movement to find pockets of space all across the final third.
Kovačić’s flair helps set up numerous opportunities for others, but it would be nice to see his name on the scoresheet more often. He has managed just four goals in 62 league appearances for Inter (though they've all come this season, which is promising), and has yet to score for his country despite winning 19 caps.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Kovačić seldom gets himself into clear goalscoring positions, instead preferring to hang back and watch others attempt to put the ball in the net. Secondly, his finishing is erratic, something of a surprise for a player who offers such calmness in the midfield zones.
His stunning volley against Lazio just before the winter break was the exception rather than the rule, but it is imperative to remember that Kovačić is not even 21 yet and that the goalscoring knack should come in time. It's improving.
Former Inter boss Walter Mazzarri was full of praise for his young midfielder in September: “My staff and I have worked very hard with Kovačić, and I always believed he would make the step up. He’s improved a lot, tactically and technically, and he moves well with and without the ball. This is the Kovačić we always expected, but at his age and with the quality he has there is still room for huge improvements.”
Mazzarri’s successor Roberto Mancini has also been suitably impressed, and felt a comparison with one of the world’s best schemers was apt. “The offensive players in my team must be able to play anywhere in the attack,” explained the former Manchester City boss in November. “Kovačić has great quality. It would be simplistic to think that he can only play in the attacking midfielder role. He can play anywhere. I think he can become like [David] Silva... he has important qualities.”
The iconic Italian sports paper Gazzetta dello Sport, meanwhile, emphatically exempted the young Croatian from their scathing criticism of Inter earlier this campaign: “He dribbles, assists, creates and invents, but if the other players make the wrong movements, what's the point? One player does not make a team.”
Did you know?
It's not just on the field that Kovačić has a likeness to former Milan star Kaka: both attacking midfielders are devout Christians. “Faith in God has helped me throughout my career,” Kovačić affirmed earlier this year. While he is enjoying life in Italy’s second city, he has admitted that he misses attending mass in his local church in Zagreb.
- Shooting 6
- Heading 6
- Passing 9
- Tackling 6
- Pace 8
- Dribbling 8
- Creativity 9
- Work-rate 7
“I have grown up in the faith since childhood,” the 20 year-old told Croatian newspaper Raskrižje. “To me, religion has always been important. My team-mates know I am a religious person. Those who don’t believe call me ‘alter boy’, while others blaspheme. I try to restrain them, but when I see that I’m getting nowhere, I let it be. If they want to use that language, I can only pray for them.”
What happens next?
Kovačić has just committed to Inter until 2019, and it is difficult to see the Nerazzurri entertaining the idea of selling their prized asset anytime soon. The Croatian will certainly want to test himself on the continental stage sooner rather than later, but Inter’s troubles so far this season suggest that a return to the Champions League may have to wait at least another year.