Mateo Kovacic: talented and versatile but a huge gamble for Real Madrid

Internazionale have sold the 21-year-old midfielder to Real Madrid for €32m despite his slow start at the San Siro and debate over his best position

It took Mateo Kovacic more than 20 months to score his first Serie A goal. Signed by Internazionale from Dinamo Zagreb in January 2013, he was immediately given the No10 shirt but did not find the net in a league game until the following September. The drought ended at home to Sassuolo, Kovacic running on to a Dani Osvaldo lay-off before skipping past a defender and beating the keeper.

Relief gave way to excitement at San Siro. This was a strike that epitomised the midfielder’s best qualities – the composure, the elegance, the touch. Kovacic later added an assist in what became a 7-0 rout of Sassuolo, and supporters began to wonder whether he was finally ready to come of age.

A year later, the jury is still out in Milan. The 21-year-old finished the season with eight goals across all competitions but three came in a Europa League qualifier against the Icelandic club Stjarnan. He drifted in and out of favour during the remainder of the campaign, starting a modest 26 league games. He was not expected to make the first XI for the season opener against Atalanta.

Now we know he will not even be on the bench on Saturday. Barring any late hiccups, Kovacic will instead be a Real Madrid player after they agreed to pay Inter €32m up front, plus €3m in potential bonuses, for his services.

No one could be more surprised than Kovacic at this turn of events. Barely a month has passed since he gave a lengthy interview to Gazzetta dello Sport, in which he insisted repeatedly he would not leave. “I want to prove I am worthy of Inter, I want to win with this shirt,” he said. “Inter are the same as Real or Barcelona.”

If that felt like an optimistic assessment of his Italian employers – Inter are about to enter into their fourth consecutive season without Champions League football – then it is no more so than the one Real have made of Kovacic’s standing. This is a player who cost Inter €11m, plus bonuses in 2013 and has failed to establish himself as a leading man since.

Kovacic’s talent is not in doubt. There have been plenty of moments at Inter when he has left audiences gasping. It is tempting to wonder whether Real’s manager, Rafael Benítez, may have fallen in love while managing against him with Napoli last April.

Ten minutes into a 0-0 draw, Kovacic flipped the ball between his two feet on the edge of the box, leaving an opponent flat on his back, before forcing Pepe Reina into a sharp save. Then there was the first-half free-kick that sent the goalkeeper sprawling and the late through ball that put Yuto Nagatomo in on goal while taking two defenders out of the equation.

If Kovacic had performed to this level every week, Inter might have thought twice about selling, even for such a high fee but Gazzetta’s Matteo Brega spoke for the majority of Inter fans when he lamented that the Croat: “Plays like the turn signal in your car: now he’s on, now he’s off, now he’s on, now he’s off again”.

That is not entirely Kovacic’s fault. He was not granted much continuity after arriving at Inter, who have changed manager twice since he arrived – with each new appointment bringing drastic changes to the team’s tactical approach. Last season alone, Kovacic was deployed as a left-winger, a forward, a trequartista and a deep-lying playmaker.

The problem is that, even now, it is not clear which of these positions he is best suited to. Kovacic has the vision and range of passing to pick apart an opponent from deep but lacks the bite to win tackles and give cover to the defence. He has the finesse and footwork to bamboozle a defender but too often seems to get lost and overrun as a No10.

His frustration at not being granted a run of games in any one position has been evident. When Inter’s latest manager, Roberto Mancini, told reporters that Kovacic needed to show he was capable of producing 30 strong performances in a row instead of only the one, he responded that: “Playing every week helps you to find your intensity. This is something I need to earn but playing every week helps a lot.”

What chance does he have, though, of finding the continuity he desires in Madrid? Kovacic can hardly expect to start every week in a squad who have Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, James Rodríguez and Isco competing for places in midfield.

The most plausible explanation for Real’s investment is that they have one eye fixed on the long term. Kovacic is known to think highly of Modric, who is, in turn, said to view his compatriot as a natural heir. It is reasonable to think the younger player may benefit from spending time around a team-mate of such experience and talent, taking things slowly before growing into a greater role.

There are those who see this plan working and accuse Inter of being the ones to miscalculate their need. Luisito Suárez, who wore the No10 shirt for Inter through the 1960s, expressed the fear this may be a moment the club will regret every bit as much as the one to let Andrea Pirlo join Milan in 2001.

“Andrea, too, was sold without having the patience to let him mature and then he became the player we all know,” said Suárez. “Kovacic has class … and don’t tell me he doesn’t do enough in the defensive phase because Pirlo defended badly at his age, too, then he improved this aspect of his game.”

Just because one situation resembles another does not mean history is destined to repeat itself. Inter have made plenty of bad transfer decisions down the years but moving on an inconsistent player – even a young and talented one – for almost three times what you purchased him for cannot be portrayed as bad business.

The greater gambles here belong to Real and Kovacic. Both will be hoping they do not have to wait 20 months for a goal to help validate their faith in one another.


Nicky Bandini

The GuardianTramp

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