In the January transfer window last year, Serie A club Inter Milan took the decision of shipping off two important attacking options of the team, perhaps two of the strongest. Wesley Sneijder was sent to the Turkish Super Lig to join Galatasaray and Philippe Coutinho was snapped up by Premier League club Liverpool. Both these players were clearly out of favour under Stramaccioni and went out of the Italian League in the hopes of getting first-team opportunities, which of course, they deserved.
Inter Milan were thought to be getting Paulinho from Corinthians to fill the void made by these two departures, but instead went to Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb to sign then 18 year old Mateo Kovačić. The player was training in Bosnia for a match against Zrinjski Mostar, when his coach gave him the news of the club accepting Inter’s €15 million bid. The beaming Kovavic told reporters later, “I said ‘Seriously?’ It was like a dream for me, and I can’t really describe what I feel at the moment”. On deadline day, the young Croatian was Inter’s new no. 10.
Who is Mateo Kovačić?
Mateo Kovačić was born on 6th May, 1994 in Linz, Austria and began playing football at a very early age for his local LASK Linz’s academy. At just 13 years of age, Kovačić was already spotted by European scouts, including that of Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich. The move to Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb happened for the player when the club’s academy director Bozidar Sikic noticed him representing Linz in a match against his side. He then recommended his name to chief executive Zdravko Mamic who immediately gave the youngster a place in the club’s youth ranks.
He was handed his senior debut for his new club against Hrvatski Dragovoljac by the manager on 20th November, 2010 and it turned out to be a day to remember for the young boy. Kovačić became the youngest goalscorer in the history of Croatia’s Prva Liga, at 16 years and 198 days. The youngster appeared 7 times in the League that season and helped Dinamo clinch the title. His club also went on to win the domestic cup that season, doing a double.
Kovačić played a greater role for his side the in the 2010-11 season, playing 25 times for the club and getting four goals and seven assists in the process. His team also went on to do another double when they successfully won the Croatian Cup. But this season was more important for Kovačić for another reason. It was this season that after a gap of 12 years, the Croatian club reached the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. Dinamo didn’t fare too well in the qualification stages, losing all their matches after being paired in the group which included Real Madrid, Ajax and Lyon. However, Kovačić got the much needed European exposure and he also went on to score Dynamo’s goal in the 7-1 loss against Lyon scoring his first European goal in the process. In December 2011, he won the Croatian Football Hope of the Year, an award previously given to the likes of Ivica Olica and Luka Modric.
In the beginning of 2012–13 season, he suffered a metatarsal bone injury that resulted in him missing several qualification matches for Dinamo’s second consecutive year in the Champions League. Such a serious injury at such an early age could have been a big blow for the player, but Kovačić returned just in time to play the club’s first CL group match against FC Porto. The Croatian went on to play all six of Dinamo Zagreb’s group stage matches, against Porto, Paris Saint-Germain, and Dynamo Kyiv. Kovačić continuously impressed as he displayed maturity and understanding beyond his years, and in October 2012, he was nominated for “Golden Boy”, an honour given by sports journalists to a young player from Europe who looks to be the most remarkable during a season. The prize eventually went to Isco, who was playing for Malaga at the time.
His impressive midfield performances for the Croatian club meant that sooner or later, a bigger European club would come and take Dinamo’s prized asset away from the club. The club’s board tried their level best as they kept shunning any rumours of transfer. The board went to great lengths to explain that they were looking to build a team around Kovačić, and another Dinamo prodigy, Alen Halilović (scout report here). But Dinamo eventually accepted Inter’s €15m bid, and the Austria born Croatian was instantly given the no. 10 jersey, vacated by Wesley Sneijder.
Just three days upon his arrival, the Inter manager used his new acquisition as a substitute against Siena. Thereafter, he went on to start 11 times for Inter. Kovačić continued his European experiences in the Europa league and assisted once in the four matches he played. The assist came against CFR Cluj. It was a match where Kovačić won the hearts of the Nerazzurri supporters. He put on an exemplary show, assisting Rodrigo Palicio and was taken off in the 89th minute to a standing ovation from the fans. On 30 March, Kovačić played his first ‘Derby d’Italia’ against Juventus at home. The match ended with Inter losing 1-2, but Kovačić had a memorable outing as he was the one who started the attack for Rodrigo Palacio’s 1–1 equalizer and no one who saw that match would forget his memorable run across the pitch that left 5 ‘La Vecchia Signora’ defenders hapless and completely flabbergasted. Kovačić eventually represented Inter 18 times in all competitions in his half-season at the club and in May, he received the “Gentleman Revelation of the Year” award, an accolade given by Inter fans.
This season, Kovačić has played 18 out of 19 league matches for the Serie A club and has clearly become an important and essential part of the Italian club. He has also featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch-out for in 2014. He’s at #19 in our list of midfielders. View the entire list here.
Kovačić has represented Croatia at every age group, and he played his first senior international match against arch rivals, Serbia in March 2013. He played the match as a holding midfielder. Mateo put on an excellent debut performance and teammate Nico Kranjčar called him “a professor of football”. This resulted in the Nerazzurri fans calling the Croatian ‘Il Professore’.
Style, Strengths and Weaknesses
Kovačić has been regarded as his nation’s next great No. 10. He is a classic playmaker with amazing attacking threat, but at the same time he has the immense potential to play ahead or behind that role. He can play anywhere in the midfield, in the centre, behind the striker or on the flanks. The 19 year old started off as an attacking midfielder, but he has astoundingly transformed his game in Milan, playing like a regista or a deep-lying playmaker. Like a good regista, the Croatian has good vision of the game, can make great interceptions and is able to perform a clean tackle. However, his natural position might be in a more advanced position. The youngster enjoys dropping deep to get the ball and then drive forward with pace and give the defenders a nightmare as he links with the other attackers.
The Inter midfielder is extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet and has great dribbling abilities which give him the confidence to take on defenders. The maturity and poise he shows at such a young age is reminiscent of Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal.
Kovačić is a brilliant passer, someone who is almost always able to find a teammate at the end of one. He can give long balls to teammates as well. In the 18 league matches he has played for Inter this season (till the game against Chievo), he has a pass completion rate of almost 91%. In Inter’s last Serie A match in the league (vs Chievo), Kovačić had a pass accuracy rate of 93%, 78 out of 84 passes were successful for the 19 year old. His ability to see a pass and then picking it out so accurately is exceptional and is only going to get better with time.
Kovačić’s main weaknesses in the game are that he doesn’t try to shoot too often and when he does, he doesn’t do a very good job of it. The player clearly has to work in that department and has plenty of time to do that as he is just 19. Once Kovačić also has the goal threat in his game, he will be one of the most sought after players in Europe and his worth in the market will also go rising.
“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.”
— Ex-Milan legend, Zvonimir Boban
“He isn’t a director like [Andrea] Pirlo. Given Kovačić’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.”
—Former Republic of Ireland boss, Giovanni Trapattoni
“I think Mateo Kovacic is really a top player, one to watch for the future. He resembles Andres Iniesta in his movements; but he can improve his skills especially his shooting. In my opinion, he can work wonders in a 3 man midfield. He is just 19 years old so let’s give him time to develop and show his qualities. I’m sure we will see an incredible player, one who I think is perfect for a number of top teams.”
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabRomano21), Goal Italia Journalist
What do you think of Mateo Kovačić? Let us know by dropping a comment below. View his SoccerWiki Profile here.