Super-reliable’ Kovacic repaying Tuchel’s love in new model Chelsea


There were 15 minutes on the clock at Stamford Bridge when a lone player in black and white stripes decided it might be worth trying to break Mateo Kovacic’s spell in midfield. Joe Willock had the right idea, stepping into Chelsea’s half before making towards the player running the game. But Kovacic was one step ahead. He knew what was coming and Willock never got close to the Croatian, who danced round the Newcastle midfielder before lifting a beautiful ball over the top for Tammy Abraham to burst through on goal.

Newcastle were sliced apart and it needed a thunderous challenge from Jamaal Lascelles, whose intervention left Abraham unable to continue, to prevent a goal. But Kovacic was in the zone. He was in complete control, dominating with his tenacious tackling, crisp passing and driving runs.

It is why Thomas Tuchel was ready to work with Kovacic after replacing Frank Lampard as Chelsea’s manager. Although the former Real Madrid player has often flattered to deceive during two and a half seasons in England, there is no doubting his natural talent. There are times when Kovacic’s skill takes the breath away, particularly with his knack of winning 50-50 challenges before wriggling out of tight spots with deft footwork and dizzying body swerves.

“I love him,” Tuchel said afterwards. “It is very easy. You can wake the guy up at 3am and he will be at Cobham at 3.15 ready to give everything, listen and play with full energy. You need to calm the guy down at training so he is not doing too much. He is super-reliable.”

The issue has been how best to use Kovacic, who is not as mobile as N’Golo Kanté or as incisive in the final third as Mason Mount. Although he had good spells under Lampard, he never sustained them. The 26-year-old was tough to pin down. Was he a player of substance or an individual who looked good on the surface? He veered towards the latter at times, and there were concerns that he lacked positional discipline, exposing Chelsea’s defence.

It is telling that Kovacic often paid the price when Lampard’s side were struggling: he was substituted at half-time when Chelsea were 3-0 down to West Brom in September and 2-0 down to Arsenal in December. Yet those disastrous performances cannot be pinned on one player. Chelsea were a muddle. They lacked tactical stability and it was often hard to understand Lampard’s selections, not least when he exposed Kovacic’s defensive weaknesses by playing him out of a position as a holding midfielder against Leicester last month.

The gung-ho approach backfired. Kovacic was overwhelmed by Leicester’s speed on the break and Chelsea fell to an embarrassing defeat, effectively ending Lampard’s reign. The manager was granted one more game, the FA Cup win over Luton, and picked a central midfield of Mount and Billy Gilmour. Supporters were pleased to see two academy players starting together. There were a few raised eyebrows when Tuchel introduced himself by reverting to a midfield of Kovacic and Jorginho for his first game, a dour draw with Wolves.

Chelsea dominated possession but created little. They lacked thrust. It felt like a return to the debate that swirled over the composition of their midfield under Maurizio Sarri, who made space for Jorginho to conduct play by shifting Kanté to an inside-right position, with Kovacic to the left. Kanté, who has struggled with fitness issues, has started one of Tuchel’s first six games and Gilmour is fourth choice. Yet Tuchel is undeterred. He has spoken about the importance of having “double sixes” in midfield and made a point of praising Jorginho and Kovacic after Chelsea beat Tottenham this month.

The partnership is working at the moment, though it should be pointed out that Tuchel has faced teams who have not pressed his midfield, leaving Kovacic and Jorginho free to dictate. Although Chelsea are controlling games, ensuring that opponents are creating few clear chances, it may yet become apparent why Lampard wanted to add an extra layer of security by signing West Ham’s Declan Rice.

There will be more pressure when Tuchel’s side visit Southampton on Saturday and the true test will come when they meet Atlético Madrid in the Champions League next Tuesday. It feels like a defining moment in Kovacic’s Chelsea career. He needs to make himself undroppable.