As one would imagine, memories of the 1998 World Cup run deep in Croatia. Still very much a new nation then, only a few years after having gained its independence from Yugoslavia in a bloody war, the country had little to show for and football became its best promotional tool.
The national team dazzled the world with an exuberant display in its maiden appearance at the tournament, wearing psychedelic red and white checkers and at times squeezing three exceptionally gifted playmakers into the lineup. As Croatia marched to third place in France, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic became known as its “magic triangle”.
Every generation since has been made to withstand an unfair comparison to the iconic Bronze-winning side. And recently the media in the country started talking about a new magic triangle in Vatreni’s midfield: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic. But while the first two are established stars who both are among the best playmakers in Spain’s La Liga this season, the young Kovacic—he turns 20 in May—is still largely unproven at the big stage; a mystery.
In late January last year, he was at a Dinamo Zagreb training camp in Bosnia, preparing for a friendly match. Coach Krunoslav Jurcic told him the news: “Get your things. You’re going to Italy to sign with Inter Milan”. It was out of the blue—no previous serious interest from the Serie A club had been reported and it was already the day before transfer deadline.
“I said ‘Seriously?’ It was like a dream for me, and I can’t really describe what I feel at the moment,” Kovacic told reporters, via ESPNFC, after the deal was completed.
Kovacic was given the No. 10 black and blue shirt, vacated by Wesley Sneijder’s departure to Galatasaray. He was showered with compliments and presented as the next big thing, a wonderkid whom Inter managed to snatch in a tough competition which also included the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, who were closely following his progress for years.
But now, little more than a year after he was handed his Italian debut against Siena in February 2013, it seems Inter haven’t bestowed him with one thing he needed the most: patience. While he played a lot under previous coach Andrea Stramaccioni, this season Walter Mazzari only gave him eight starts out of 27 league games. Of those eight, he was subbed four times, twice in the first half.
The club isn’t exactly known as the ideal place for developing talents. Only a day before they signed Kovacic, they also sold Coutinho to Liverpool for less money than they paid for the Croat—and the Brazilian midfielder soon flourished at Anfield. It is also probably true that Kovacic wasn’t fully ready for the leap to one of Europe’s big teams and the pressure, as well as the tactical finesse, that came with it.
That might have something to do with the fact that he still doesn’t have a defined position. No one can really tell what his ideal role on the pitch should be. He has been used deep in midfield or just behind the striker and now, increasingly, as an alternative who can step in for anyone who is injured, suspended or not fully fit; it’s true that he can play in any midfield position, but not equally well in all of them.
The confusion can be traced to Kovacic’s time at Dinamo Zagreb, when he was made to play deeper as the team needed a cover for their trequartista Sammir (now at Getafe)—quite an old-school ‘No. 10’ who usually operated only in the small central patch of field, linking the midfield and the attack. Young, modest and hard-working as he was, Kovacic never objected, though analysts warned his talents weren’t being put to best use.
When he started playing for Dinamo, becoming the Croatian league’s youngest goal-scorer at just 16 years and 198 days old (later his record was broken by Alen Halilovic, Barcelona's new signing), he played as a wide attacking midfielder and already excelled. However, little by little he was repackaged and sold to Inter as a deep-lying playmaker.
Weeks after his big move, he also made his senior debut for Croatia in their grudge match against Serbia, playing as a holder in 4-4-2 formation. It was surely a baptism of fire for the lad who hadn’t yet turned 19 at the time, but he showed unexpected maturity and did well, even as every counter-attack by the opposition left him very exposed.
“He has the potential to become better than me,” Zvonimir Boban told the Italian press, via ESPNFC. “He’s not a born playmaker and not yet a complete player. He can play either on the left or right of central midfield in a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2. He could also become a playmaker in a few years’ time.”
Boban’s words still ring true as Kovacic has been struggling to make his name at Inter. This winter, in one more last-minute transfer deal, the club signed Hernanes from Lazio—another strong competitor for his place in the team. That may be interpreted as a clear sign that coach Mazzari doesn’t trust his young Croatian starlet, as much as he’s talking him up publicly. And the lack of first-team opportunities has left the player dejected.
“I did not expect this kind of situation at Inter because I was a regular starter under the previous coach, while I am now confined to the bench or even less,” Kovacic said, via Reuters, ahead of Croatia’s friendly match with Switzerland last week. “It is a tough moment for me and my confidence is very low, but it’s up to me to adjust, work hard to prove my worth to the present coach at Inter and hit top form in time for the World Cup,” he added.
Kovacic is really comfortable with the ball at his feet and is probably the best dribbler at Inter; he enjoys dropping deep to get the ball and then driving forward with pace to take on opposing defence. He has a great vision of the game, which means both that he’s able to make crucial interceptions defensively and provide key passes to the attackers. In that Switzerland game, he showed a flash of sheer brilliance as he made a phenomenal pass from deep to Ivica Olic, which resulted in a goal.
But Kovacic may not be perfect for central midfield—he’s not as compact and great in shielding the ball as, say, his Croatia teammate Luka Modric. He can get outmuscled by more robust players and he's rather weak in the air. Rather than controlling the middle of the park by keeping the ball in movement with many touches and short passes, he needs space to flourish.
With his exceptional agility, light feet and impressive acceleration with the ball, the natural position for him might be where it all started—on the wing, from where he would cut inside to act as an auxiliary playmaker. If they failed to recognize that at Inter, other clubs might be more inclined to try him out wide.
And the interest seems to be growing by the day, despite Kovacic not playing much in Milan—or perhaps precisely because of that. A number of clubs, including Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea are reportedly interested and recently Borussia Dortmund were linked to a possible move towards the youngster, who is unhappy and feeling neglected in his current side.
It’s certainly tempting to imagine him in any of those teams, but the question remains whether Inter will be willing to let him go. It is, though, becoming more evident that Kovacic might need to leave if he is to fulfill his vast potential and complete Croatia's new “magic triangle." He seems stuck—will someone come to the rescue?
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