It was a signing that caught many people by surprise. With Gareth Bale, Isco and James Rodriguez all already vying for the No. 10 role in Rafael Benitez’s favoured 4-2-3-1 setup, the addition of another attacking midfielder did not seem like an urgent requirement for Real Madrid. Indeed, almost as soon as Croatian playmaker Mateo Kovacic sealed his €32 million from Inter, predictions of stagnation on the substitutes’ bench were aired.
The 21-year-old, though, has been handed a chance to shine earlier than expected: with Bale and Rodriguez both absent through injury, Kovacic was included in Benitez’s starting XI for the first time against Athletic Club last Wednesday and then looked bright after coming on as a substitute in Saturday’s encounter with Malaga, even though Madrid dropped points with a disappointing goalless draw at the Santiago Bernabeu.
With Bale and Rodriguez expected to be back for Saturday’s derby with Atletico, Kovacic’s performances have given Benitez something of a selection headache; while the Wales international is still likely to get the nod given his previous form and status as a favourite of president Florentino Perez, Kovacic has certainly won over some of the doubters who questioned whether he was good enough to make an instant impact at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Against Athletic last Wednesday, Kovacic was deployed not as a No. 10 but as part of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3 configuration when Madrid had the ball and as a central midfielder tasked with covering the left flank in a 4-4-2 when Benitez’s side were out of possession, with Cristiano Ronaldo moving up front alongside Karim Benzema.
The Croatian’s versatility will not be a surprise to those who watched him during his two-and-a-half-years in Italy: Kovacic played as a regista in front of the defence, as a central attacking playmaker and even out on the left, a position he was regularly used in at first club Dinamo Zagreb.
After giving the ball away twice early on, Kovacic soon settled into the game in the Basque country as Madrid took control. His passing was sharp and accurate, and his willingness to carry the ball forward helped Los Blancos to transition from defence to attack quickly.
Karim Benzema opened the scoring in the 19th minute after an error from Athletic defender Mikel San Jose, and Kovacic was unfortunate not to double Madrid’s lead just before the interval.
After driving forward with the ball at his feet, the 21-year-old picked out Benzema out wide and, continuing his run into the box, brilliantly controlled the return ball with his right foot before forcing a fine save from Gorka Iraizoz Moreno with his left.
Madrid had to dig in after the break, with Kovacic contributing to a resolute second-half showing as the visitors ground out a 2-1 victory.
Saturday’s encounter with Malaga was frustrating, with Madrid failing to beat a side who have still yet to score a single goal this season.
Kovacic began the game on the bench but was introduced in the 60th minute and immediately made an impact. Though Madrid could not find the breakthrough, Kovacic again impressed.
“He has a lot of quality and dynamism,” Benitez said of the former Inter string-puller last week. “I already knew him from Italian football and I know what he can give us.”
The imminent return of Bale and Rodriguez will make things more difficult for Kovacic, but the man once described as a “mixture of Kaka and Clarence Seedorf” by former Italy boss Giovanni Trapattoni has certainly made a positive early impression.
About the Author – Greg Lea
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.