There has been a definite shift in the recruitment policy at Real Madrid over recent years, gone are the galacticos years where the club relied on average at best products from the cantera or youth system to supplement a first team squad populated by the most high profile players on the planet.
Now, whilst there is still an expectation both from president Florentino Perez and the fans of the club that they maintain the signing of high profile players the secondary recruitment pipeline has become more intelligent by far. Whilst the Cantera has been altogether more productive with the likes of Nacho, Lucas Vazquez, Borja Mayoral and Marcos Llorente coming through there has been a definite shift towards the signing of young players with genuine potential from around Spain and Europe in general.
This change of direction has led to the club recruiting Jesus Vallejo from Real Zaragoza, Theo Hernandez from Atletico Madrid, Marco Asensio from Real Mallorca and Isco from Malaga. Perhaps so the most interesting of these signing came in 2015 when the club purchased the Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic from Inter Milan.
Kovacic is only 23 years old and appears to be on the precipice of making a significant breakthrough in to the first team picture. He has already accrued 36 caps for the Croatian national team and he appears to be winning the trust of Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane. Already excellent in possession whether passing or dribbling the ball forwards Kovacic appears to have added an extra string to his game as he becomes more proficient in the defensive phase.
Strength in regaining possession
During his formative years at Dinamo Zagreb and even in to his spell in Italy with Inter Milan there were doubts surrounding the viability of playing Kovacic in a central midfield role. There were those that viewed his defensive output in that area as a liability as they felt he was better suited as an orthodox number ten, a luxury player almost.
Towards the end of last season there were definite signs that this was changing, as Zidane intelligently rotated his squad we saw Kovacic appear more often in the first team and he was excellent whether counter pressing the opposition or tracking back in order to regain possession of the ball.
In this clip we can see Kovacic playing for the national side in a match against Estonia. As the Estonian player has possession of the ball in the central areas we see Kovacic moving back to cover the threat of the man with the ball.
He moves in quickly on the blind side of the Estonian player and easily takes possession of the ball back, key however is that he then immediately looks to move his team up the field after winning the ball back.
He immediately moves across in to space before shifting the ball out to a team mate.
In this example we see Kovacic playing for the first team in a match against Espanyol, he is deep in his own half in the half space. As Espanyol regain possession and move the ball in to his zone the midfielder is quick to engage with the ball and win possession back.
Once again though as soon as the ball is regained Kovacic goes immediately on the offensive. As he bursts forward with the ball Real Madid are immediately back on the offensive.
Strength on the ball
When in possession of the ball Kovacic displays excellent strength and balance, he is extremely difficult to knock off the ball with a low centre of gravity and excellent close control.
These aspects of his game make Kovacic an extremely interesting prospect as a central midfielder. The capacity to dribble with the ball and beat your immediate defensive opponent in a 1v1 situation centrally can cause chaos for the opposition’s defensive structure.
If a player like Kovacic is able to beat a man in this area and move in to the space in front of the other sides defensive line then there is an immediate opportunity for an overload in the final third.
Here initially we see Kovacic engaging the Deportivo La Coruna player in order to regain possession in the central area of his own half. As he wins the ball back however another Deportivo player moves in to counter press and try to immediate take possession back.
Kovacic however is strong on the ball and as the opposition player slides in he simply manipulates the ball out of the way and then finds Marcelo wide on the left hand side. As with the previous examples we then see Kovacic immediately move to support the man in possession to ensure that his side are able to retain the ball. He drops deep in same zone as Marcelo to offer a passing option for the Brazilian full back should it be required.
This time we see Kovacic moving through the centre of the field in the attacking phase. As he takes possession and looks to drive towards the Deportivo penalty area he is challenged twice by opposition players who are intent on winning the ball back. Each time we see excellent balance from Kovacic as he not only stays on his feet but retains possession of the ball under control.
Eventually as the third player moves to engage he slips the ball forwards to a teammate to move in to the penalty area. In this short movement Kovacic has advanced the ball to the edge of the penalty area while at least two opposition players completely out of the game.
This ability in central areas is an excellent addition to any team.
Vision in the final third
As well as being excellent when dribbling the ball through the final third of the pitch Kovacic also displays excellent awareness and vision with the ability to time through balls for his forward players to run on to in the opposition penalty area.
His style in this manner is similar to teammate Isco who is equally impressive both when carrying the ball forward and when playing short sharp passes to combine with his forward players. The potential of having both Isco and Kovacic starting in the midfield for Real Madrid at points this season will be terrifying for opposition defenders.
In this clip we see Kovacic driving with the ball through the centre of the field towards the opposition penalty area. As he carries the ball centrally the defensive line continues to drop deeper, wary of the threat of the through ball in behind them.
Morata is the striker for Real who reads the intentions of Kovacic and makes a movement in the penalty are from left to right in behind the defenders. The disguise and pace on the slipped through ball is excellent and it makes it extremely easy for the striker to finish past the goalkeeper.
Once again here we see Kovacic take possession of the ball in the final third, initially his movement is clever as he drifts behind the line of opposition pressure and allows the pass to break the lines and find him in space
As he then turns and drives towards the penalty area we again see the timing of the run from the eventual goalscorer. As he makes his move in behind the defensive line Kovacic plays what amounts to a no look pass with the perfect weight in order to allow the forward to finish comfortably.
Mateo Kovacic has been a favourite of the tactical and statistical sides of twitter for a while now, his output whenever given a chance tends to be off the charts with dribbles and chances created galore. With Real Madrid having sold off several of their backup players this season there is a real chance that the Croatian midfielder will receive significant first team minutes this season.
At 23 he needs to make the breakthrough soon or look to move on for the good of his career, he has too much ability to sit on the bench and should be at a club where he can display his talents fully.