Versatility is a lauded trait within the fluid landscape of modern football. The ability to perform while rotating between multiple different positions increases the worth of the individual to the team, with defiance of specialism seen as a signal of multi-faceted talent. In this sense, versatility is a gift, though for some it is also a curse.
There are a few things about Mateo Kovacic that are widely known and proven through years of evidence. One: he is an extremely gifted, even precocious, young footballer. Two: his potential knows no bounds. However, these two points are overshadowed by another, more significant factor: we are yet to understand his true best position.
For Kovacic, the ability to perform in multiple roles has seen him shunted around the Inter Milan line-up since he arrived in January 2013 for a €15 million fee. Flitting around the Nerazurri midfield, he has yet to establish himself in any one position. Instead of flourishing, the Croat’s development has been hindered by a lack of clarity, dogged by inconsistency.
It has been somewhat disappointing to watch a player such as Kovacic – one who glides elegantly as opposed to running forcefully; who has the creative capacity to unlock defences with a shift of gear or a subtle glance – used as a midfield makeweight while Inter try desperately to fathom which system they should use.
His cause has not been aided by a revolving door of coaches. In the last two-and-a-half years, Inter have gone through three of them, they being Andrea Stramaccioni, Walter Mazzarri and Roberto Mancini. Under Stramaccioni, Kovacic found himself at the behest of a young, inexperienced coach who was still in the process of defining his ideology. Mazzarri’s management brought with it a greater degree of systematic coherence as the former Napoli coach attempted to implement the 3-5-2 formation he had used successfully with the Partenopei, though he and Kovacic endured a frosty relationship and the youngster failed to impose himself upon Mazzarri’s starting line-up.
Mancini’s return last November brought yet more change. While the appointment was seen as a significant step forward in the revitalisation of Inter, it also heralded another period of uncertainty for Kovacic on a personal level. Once again he was encumbered with the doubt associated with a new managerial era. Even the most tactically astute of players would have struggled to fit into the plans of three distinctly different coaches and as Mancini chopped and changed, going from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2, Kovacic spent his time hopping from central midfield to attacking midfield to the bench and back.
A smooth dribbler with a deft touch and an eye for a pass, it seems strange that as yet Inter have not built their midfield around Kovacic’s talents. Upon signing he was handed the number 10 shirt previously worn by Wesley Sneijder, something that hinted at his future as Inter’s trequartista. Unfortunately, for all Kovacic has the talent to succeed the Dutchman, he has not yet fulfilled such heady expectations.
This small failure only encourages further investigation, though it doesn’t take too much inspection to find that the 21-year-old has had issues adapting to Italian football in general. In April 2014, Kovacic told Inter’s official website:
“Italian football is very difficult, there’s not a lot of space like in England or Spain but you learn different things such as how to defend and tactics, which are very important.”
Perhaps then his inability to shine on a frequent basis is due not only to tactical instability but a difficulty settling into calcio culture. Perhaps he would thrive in the dynamic, back-and-forth of English football or amid the technical mastery of La Liga. This idea is fuelled by many reports of serious interest from abroad. Every summer, Kovacic is linked with a move away and 2015 has continued this trend, with Liverpool touted as potential suitors.
Were he destined for Anfield he would have a clear framework to follow in young Brazilian, Philippe Coutinho. The similarities between the two are somewhat startling. Like Kovacic, Coutinho arrived at Inter as a fresh-faced teenager, full of enthusiasm and labelled as a great attacking hope. Like Kovacic his best position was initially considered to be behind the strikers. Like Kovacic, he struggled to assert himself at the club.
Coutinho departed for Liverpool days before Kovacic arrived at Inter and has since gone on to become one of the Premier League’s most exciting players, while wearing the number 10 shirt. He was sold for a meagre £8.5 million fee, a figure that will likely raise eyebrows for years to come, partly due to the fee itself but also because of Inter’s astonishing lack of foresight. Letting Kovacic follow the same path as Coutinho could be another mistaken vision. Careful steps must be taken so as to ensure Inter do not become a conveyor belt for other teams; a club that manages to produce mediocrity from skilled abundance.
For all the transfer talk, it is worth noting that Kovacic’s form actually picked up at the end of the 2014-15 season. Mancini eventually decided upon a 4-3-1-2 system, with Kovacic playing in the midfield three. It meant he was a number 10 in jersey only, though his form improved nonetheless with two assists in the final four Serie A fixtures suggesting he still has a future in Milan.
Inter’s recent signature of Geoffrey Kondogbia provides additional ball-winning muscle and athleticism to be used in transitions. In this sense it is a tactically useful signature, though it also poses financial questions. Inter were recently sanctioned for breaching financial fair play, so they will have to balance their books. In light of the Kondogbia arrival, this means sales are probably afoot. Kovacic may well be on, or near, the list of expendables, though if this were the case it would be negligence on Inter’s part. With a coach the club can trust and the tactical consistency that brings, Inter could be on the verge of unlocking Kovacic’s full potential. If they don’t, someone else will.