Less than a year after Manchester City and Chelsea reached an agreement to sell Raheem Sterling to Chelsea for £47.5 million, the two Premier League heavyweights are getting ready to negotiate a new deal that would transfer Mateo Kovacic from Stamford Bridge to the Etihad Stadium.
Liam Twomey, a Chelsea correspondent for The Athletic, and Sam Lee, a Manchester City correspondent, talk about why this deal makes sense for both teams, how Kovacic will be remembered in west London, how Pep Guardiola plans to use him, and more in the chat that follows.
Sam Lee has live coverage of today’s FA Cup final between Manchester United and Manchester City. Liam, what’s going on at Chelsea and why are they so desperate to let good players go so rapidly and for such a low price?
Mr. Liam Twomey At Stamford Bridge, it must be Black Friday! With all humor aside, the situation at Chelsea is not particularly dire, but they are extremely driven sellers this summer, and the number of departures is likely to exceed ten.
Newest transfer information from Kovacic is ready to enter the final year of his contract at Chelsea, and there haven’t been any real discussions regarding a new term between the player’s representatives and the club. Kovacic is the Athletic Transfer target for every side in the Premier League this summer.
This summer, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital plan to restructure their midfield options as they create a team around record-signing Enzo Fernandez. While academy graduates Mason Mount, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Conor Gallagher are all on the long list of potential sales, N’Golo Kante still has the option of leaving as a free agent.
Chelsea must sell in order to make additional midfield acquisitions. This is necessary both to comply with financial fair play requirements and to downsize a squad that has grown too large over the previous year. The release of Kovacic would also assist Boehly and Clearlake accomplish their other objective of reducing the club’s salary cost by offloading some of the pricey contracts given out by former owner Roman Abramovich. Kovacic is a prime candidate.
Chelsea does not have the luxury of being especially selective about the players they sell this transfer window, or the clubs they sell them to. Even a little amount for Kovacic, who turned 29 earlier this month and is free to go for no reason in 2019, will be viewed internally as a win.
However, I’ll stop talking about the Chelsea connection for now. Sam, why has City chosen to bolster their midfield with Kovacic? Why don’t they appear interested in any of the top midfielders available this window, like Jude Bellingham, Moises Caicedo, and Manuel Ugarte? Has Abu Dhabi’s funding stopped coming in?
Sam: He’s just one of the possibilities, after all. Bellingham was the target of City’s pursuit, but things did not work out as expected. Kovacic would have always been separate, so this change makes more sense overall.
As far as I have been told, City going for Kovacic is not related to Ilkay Gundogan’s future, but the situation at the club this summer is that Gundogan — who is in talks over a new deal but with Arsenal and Barcelona among those interested — and/or Bernardo Silva could leave.
With that in mind, City would need a similar type of midfielder, one who is good in small spaces, press resistant and can set the tempo of the game with quick, slick passing. Bellingham is not that: he is more box to box and while he would have ticked many boxes, they are not the ones City would need if Bernardo and/or Gundogan leave.
Kovacic does tick them, plus he has a wealth of experience and, seemingly, a good mentality. Crucially, City have leverage in the deal: for the reasons you mentioned, he is going fairly cheap. City really do not like to be drawn into bidding wars and they love situations where there is a buy-out clause or, in rare cases, a player leaving for free — it was only last year they were about to get Paul Pogba at the end of his contract!
Kovacic’s circumstances are the next best thing. It feels very cheap for a player of his quality — how big of a loss would he be for Chelsea?
Liam: That is actually a harder question to answer than it seems. Kovacic’s talent has never been in doubt and every coach he has had at Chelsea has admired what he can do with the ball at his feet. Yet in the five years since he first arrived at Stamford Bridge on loan from Real Madrid, he never managed to make himself as integral to the team as Kante or Jorginho.
His easy chemistry with Jorginho in particular helped define Chelsea’s style in possession for long stretches of his time at the club — sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A badly timed injury sidelined him for the business end of the Champions League run in 2021 but that arguably simplified things for Thomas Tuchel, since Kante and Jorginho were the most natural, balanced partnership for the two No 6 spots in his 3-4-2-1 system.
A couple of telling statistics: in his five full seasons as a Chelsea player, Kovacic never made more than 23 Premier League starts and he never ranked in the top five in the squad for league minutes. Ultimately, he will most likely be remembered as a very stylish player who was part of successful teams but was never the driving force behind those successes.
That said, the mere fact Guardiola — arguably the sharpest football mind in the world — wants Kovacic in his formidable squad is likely to unnerve even his harshest critics within the Chelsea fanbase. What have you been able to gather on that front Sam?
Sam: Guardiola has been a big fan of Kovacic since he was at Real Madrid and readers may remember City being linked with him in 2018. That is a funny one, actually: the club had just missed out on Jorginho in circumstances that frustrated them greatly and suddenly two names were leaked to the media: Mario Lemina and Kovacic.
Lemina was a surprise name linked with City
They were never going to do a deal for them but it is interesting Kovacic’s name was thrown out into the ether and, given the funny way football works, he seems set to actually come this time.
Guardiola sees him as a No 8 — one of City’s attacking midfielders, like Gundogan or Bernardo — rather than a holding midfielder.
The City boss is a fan of Kovacic’s ability to wriggle out of tight spots even under pressure, among other things, and it is easy to see him fulfil one of Gundogan’s broader briefs: drop into midfield to help City play out from the back but then get forward to join the front line. Gundogan is the master of doing that dual role, do you think Kovacic can manage something like that Liam?
Liam: Wriggle he certainly will. Kovacic is probably the most gifted ball-carrying central midfielder of his generation; at times in his early Chelsea career, it was easy to mistake him for Eden Hazard with the ball at his feet, particularly since he initially wore the Belgian’s old No 17.
His ability to spin away from and slalom through multiple opponents can make him kryptonite for an opposition press, turning defence into attack in a matter of seconds.
Kovacic is also an excellent possessional passer. He trusts his ability to keep the ball in any situation, in any area of the pitch. He and Jorginho often challenged each other to play out and through severe opposition pressure and together they succeeded much more often than not. In that respect, he looks an ideal fit in a Guardiola team.
In terms of final-third production, however, the evidence suggests the drop-off from Gundogan to Kovacic will be stark. Four goals and 13 assists in 142 Premier League appearances tells its own story; his scoring threat, even when deployed as a No 8, is almost non-existent and he only rarely sees defence-splitting through balls, pulling them off even less frequently.
What makes Kovacic more awkward to fit into an elite midfield is the fact previous Chelsea coaches have found him tactically lacking out of possession. Maurizio Sarri’s attempt to make him Jorginho’s deputy as a lone No 6 was a short-lived disaster from a defensive perspective and he can be too easy for opponents to bypass — more due to positioning than a lack of effort.
Do you think Guardiola is aware of these aspects of Kovacic’s game? He does seem to have a pretty impressive record of improving the tactical understanding of his players…
Sam: I asked somebody whether Guardiola knows about that particular element of his game and was told that, no, he probably does not. But it did not seem to be a big deal because there quickly followed a list of the things the manager does know.
On the face of things, it would be easy to say Sergio Aguero’s example could be applicable, in that he was a senior player with an established career behind him who played in a certain way but then had the humility and ability to take on new ideas once he began working with Guardiola.
Apparently, though, it is not quite so comparable and, seemingly, the plan is just to get him on the training field and teach him the ins and outs of what a City midfielder has to do, which involves a lot of proper body positioning and understanding where to be in relation to his team-mates, although he will have some appreciation of that already.
Maybe there will be problems along the way if he simply does not grasp the ideas being given to him, but it is fair to say it is not a concern within City right now and they normally get things right — and that includes how often a player is available for selection, too, but are there any risks around his injury history?
Liam: While not a huge red flag, Kovacic’s injury history is something for City to be aware of. He has missed an average of 10.7 games in each of Chelsea’s last three seasons due to a combination of muscle problems, joint issues and illness, and did not look in peak physical condition at any stage either side of the World Cup, where he performed impressively.
Kovacic’s body sidelined him for both legs of the club’s Champions League semi-final victory over Real Madrid in 2020-21 and the final against City in Porto. When on the pitch, his stocky frame is durable enough, but he is also often substituted in the second half of matches.
Guardiola may not need Kovacic to play big minutes, but if he does end up replacing Gundogan, he will have a big role to play. Do you think he projects as a regular starter for City?
Sam: They are basically all regular starters at City given the amount of games they play and the amount of rotation Guardiola likes to do. Kalvin Phillips is a notable example of somebody who is not a regular despite that constant rotation and an obvious counterpoint to what I said about City getting things right (which they do normally!).
Given Phillips only signed last summer, it would be foolish to say Kovacic is going to fit in without a shadow of a doubt because you just never know, but there are a couple of different scenarios to consider.
One is that Gundogan leaves and then there is an obvious need for Kovacic to step up straight away and, even if he does not have a great start to his City career, he might get plenty of opportunities to learn on the job anyway. The same thing goes if Bernardo leaves. If both were to leave, then the equation is obvious.
If both stay then there will still be plenty of opportunities for Kovacic: Gundogan will still need to be rested or he could even drop deeper and allow Rodri a rest if Phillips is still not in favour (or has left).
I suppose what a ‘regular’ means for City is somebody who would be a go-to guy for big Champions League knockout games and it would be a big ask to get to that stage in his first season, but barring a disaster, he should get plenty of game time.
Liam: It will be fascinating to see what Guardiola would do with Kovacic, whether he has another level to unlock in his game from what we saw at Chelsea, and how Mauricio Pochettino’s midfield at Stamford Bridge might take shape without him. Thanks, Sam!