Real Madrid's Mateo Kovacic Needs to Find a Niche to Avoid Becoming a Drifter

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2016

VALENCIA, SPAIN - JANUARY 03:  Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid CF looks on during the Valencia CF vs Real Madrid CF as part of the Liga BBVA 2015-2016  at Estadi de Mestalla on January 3, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Colomer/Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Mateo Kovacic had been a Real Madrid player for barely five minutes, and already it needed answering. 

"What is your position?" the Croatian was asked almost immediately after his unveiling in the presidential box at the Santiago Bernabeu last August. "I'm not going to decide my own position," replied Kovacic, "that's the manager's job, but I feel best as a defensive midfielder. In my opinion that's where I'm most comfortable, but that's the manager's decision."

At the time, it was an important question. Arriving from Inter Milan, the then-21-year-old had spent a season playing in almost every position there is—deep playmaker, winger, forward, trequartista; you name it—but despite his obvious talent, no one really knew which he was best in. 

And nine months on, well, ditto. 

In the time that's elapsed since that unveiling and that question (and despite his own assertion), we haven't really got any closer to working out exactly what Kovacic is. In the opening months of the season, he was used quite regularly by former boss Rafa Benitez, but it was a similar story to the one at Inter: sometimes central, sometimes wide, sometimes further forward. 

Benitez, it seemed, valued the Croatian's versatility, but in football the term "versatility" has two sides to it: At its best, it translates to "excels anywhere"; at its worst, it's more like "position-less" or "without definition."

At present, Kovacic is probably somewhere in the middle of such a spectrum, but the simple fact he's to be found on it is potentially problematic. 

Since Zinedine Zidane replaced Benitez in early January, the midfielder's (can we call him that?) appearances have become increasingly infrequent. With the Frenchman preferring to use a very defined XI whenever possible instead of the more specific-lineups-for-specific-opponents approach employed by his predecessor, there's been little room for Kovacic.

For Zidane, the result of such a method has slowly seen Madrid develop a greater sense of structure and identity—the manager's iconic status and greater feeling of authority has been helpful here, allowing him to shape the side to his designs—but quietly significant behind that has been the nature of Zidane's use of secondary options.

When key players have been missing or rotation has been required, the Frenchman has opted for players from whom he knows exactly what he's going to get.

Jese: straight-line runs.

Lucas Vazquez: industry out wide.

Isco: connector between lines. 

But Kovacic? 

Zidane is likely as unsure as the rest of us.

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 30:  Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid CF in action during the Real Madrid CF vs Real Sociedad as part of the Liga BBVA 2015-2016 at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 30, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Power Sport
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

This is hardly the Croatian's fault—it's not his decision to play all over the place—but concurrently, when you evaluate his skill set, it's difficult to know where he should play.

Indeed, for an attacking role, he possesses the technical quality but not the ability to be the game's pulse, games often drifting by him. For a central role, he possesses the crisp passing but doesn't yet have the poise, an erratic streak evident. For a deeper role, he has the energy and ability to cover ground but not the grunt or ball winning.

Perhaps it's this that's led to a somewhat makeshift existence, which has in turn seen continuity and form disrupted. "[Kovacic] plays like the turn signal in your car," wrote Gazzetta dello Sport's Matteo Brega when the player was at Inter, per the Guardian's Paolo Bandini, "now he's on, now he's off, now he's on, now he's off again."

It's somewhat perplexing as, despite the absence of clarity, there's a lot to like about the 22-year-old.

A lot.

Back in September, there was a moment in Madrid's clash with Athletic Bilbao at San Mames that was fleeting but compelling. Kovacic had carried the ball through the middle of the pitch before moving it out wide to Karim Benzema and continuing his run. Benzema reached the edge of the Athletic box and then checked back inside, looking for the man who'd given it to him. 

The Frenchman then played the pass, "pass" in this case meaning "blast," the striker having truly thumped it at Kovacic with little grace. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the ball would ricochet away, but here it didn't.

With one touch, Kovacic stopped it dead. Then he swivelled, shot with venom. The whole thing unfolded in less than a second, but it was flawless, Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz forced to make a fine reflex save.

He's got it, you thought to yourself. 

Now, though, with an entire season having almost passed, we're not sure exactly what it is.  

BILBAO, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 23: Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid CF duels for the ball with Raul Garcia of Athletic Club Bilbao during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Madrid CF at San Mames Stadium on September 23, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain.
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

As had been the case at Inter, Kovacic at Madrid has continued down a path where "pfffs" are as regular as head scratches. 

Time after time, he's displayed impeccable touch and has radiated energy, but rarely has it amounted to much. Where those skills fit isn't clear; what Madrid and Zidane need to do with him is difficult to pinpoint. 

As such, you sense Kovacic needs to take control of this himself. To avoid drifting through positions (and possibly clubs, too), he needs clarity and definition and purpose. That means finding a niche, essentially saying: "I'm this, and I'm going to be damn good at it."

"This" could be an attacking midfielder, a No. 10 type. It could be a central conductor. It could be a deep-lying playmaker. It could be a defensive-minded sit-in sort. 

As it is, he has a lot of the raw tools to be any one of them, but that's the problem: He isn't any one of them. 

At Madrid right now, Kovacic isn't really anything; he's a little bit of everything but not completely something. 

And there are two sides to versatility. 

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