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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Thomas Tuchel discovers Chelsea undroppable against Real Madrid to ease summer transfer concern

  It was shortly after joining Chelsea on loan in the summer of 2018 that Mateo Kovacic explained why he had to leave Real Madrid after t...


It was shortly after joining Chelsea on loan in the summer of 2018 that Mateo Kovacic explained why he had to leave Real Madrid after three seasons with the La Liga giants. "It was two years of struggling in Madrid, playing and not playing, it was difficult," the Croatian midfielder explained. "Without the confidence, you don't try the things you know."

Kovacic's first campaign at Stamford Bridge saw him job-share a role on the left of Maurizio Sarri's midfield three with Ross Barkley. There were flashes of the Croatian's skill and poise on the ball, but he didn't have a huge impact in either the attacking or defensive third. Still, given the Blues had to serve a transfer ban in the summer of 2019, it made sense to turn Kovacic's loan into a permanent deal.

Under Frank Lampard, Kovacic blossomed further. He made 47 appearances across all competitions and was named Chelsea's 2019/20 Player of the Season. It was deserved but also an indication of the inconsistency of those around the midfielder in Lampard's side. There wasn't an overwhelming favourite to win the honour.

Last term, Kovacic was firmly stuck behind Jorginho and N'Golo Kante in the midfield pecking order. There was even a spell under Lampard where Mason Mount and Kai Havertz were used as eights in a three-man midfield.

There was genuine debate as to how Kovacic fit in at Chelsea and whether he would quite able to live up to the potential he displayed early in his career at Dinamo Zagreb and Inter Milan.

In the tail-end of last season's run to Champions League glory, Kovacic played a support role. Injury kept him out of the semi-final tie against Real Madrid and he featured for only ten minutes in the final against Manchester City – the Croatia international replaced Mount as Chelsea closed out the game to claim their second European Cup.

Yet in Thomas Tuchel, Kovacic had a huge admirer. And after the midfielder made a strong start to the current campaign, the Chelsea head coach was quick praise the 27-year-old. "I could feel there is such a big potential when I met him and this friendly, humble guy with such a big heart for football and such a passion for training," Tuchel said in October.

"It is a pure joy to be his coach. We encourage him to trust his potential, to simplify his game a little bit, and not look in every scenario for a third and fourth solution because sometimes he already has his first and second solutions that are pretty good. He always thinks about the others. He would always pass the ball on the goal line if there was somebody to score and not him."

Kovacic has added greater decisiveness to his game this term. He has six assists across all competitions – one fewer than he managed in the three seasons prior – and in the Premier League, his expected goals assisted has risen to 0.32 per 90. For context, the highest he previously achieved across an English top-flight campaign was 0.13.

This coupled with his care on the ball, his ability to break an opponent's press with a wiggle of his hips and quick dribble, and his indefatigable work rate make Kovacic vital to Chelsea and Tuchel. It's why it is still baffling that the Croatia international didn't start first leg of the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Real Madrid.

He was introduced at half time for Kante, at which point the Blues trailed 2-1. That soon became 3-1 as Edouard Mendy gifted Karim Benzema a simple chance to complete his hat-trick, but for much of the second period at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were able to control the game in a fashion they didn't during the opening 45 minutes.

Kovacic was crucial to that. Tuchel rectified that mistake at the Bernabeu last night. Kovacic was deployed alongside Kante in midfield as Chelsea attempted to complete the almost impossible and win by three clear goals at the home of the Spanish champions. History was against them, few expected a comeback.

Yet the Blues almost pulled it off as they were 3-0 ahead with ten minutes to play. Kovacic was key – it was he who helped Chelsea dominate possession in the Real Madrid half. Per FBRef, no member of Tuchel's side completed more passes (91) and only Thiago Silva had a better pass completion than Kovacic (93.9%).

Yet he wasn't simply circulating possession, he was hurting Real Madrid as 13 of his passes entered the final third, another high among Blues players. Out of possession, Kovacic covered an inordinate amount of space to shut down passing avenues and angles for Real Madrid's midfielders.

He was also quick to press Luka Modric and Toni Kroos when the duo received the ball and was successful in more pressures (13) than any of his teammates.

 Come half time of extra time, which was forced by a late goal from Rodrygo, Kovacic had nothing left in the tank and was replaced by Jorginho for the final 15 minutes in which Chelsea were unable to find an equaliser after Benzema had netted what proved the winner.

It was cruel on the Blues' players, almost all of whom thrived on the biggest stage. Kovacic certainly didn't deserve to be on the losing side – on aggregate – on his return to the Bernabeu. But what he did prove is that he has finally usurped Jorginho and Kante in the midfield pecking order.

Given that duo are out of contract in the summer of 2023 and decisions will need to be taken at the end of the current campaign about their futures, that is hugely important for Chelsea. The Croatian has become a true undroppable for Tuchel, a key cog in the high-functioning Chelsea system.

If only that had been appreciated ahead of the first leg against Real Madrid, perhaps the Blues would have secured a semi-final spot in this year's Champions League.

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