EPL

Kovacic realising his early potential after stepping up in Jorginho's absence

By Sports Desk November 09, 2019

When Mateo Kovacic re-joined Chelsea in a reported £45million deal after spending last season on loan at Stamford Bridge, it's fair to say the news wasn't met with much more than a shrug from most.

A tidy player, undoubtedly, but Kovacic's debut campaign at Chelsea did little to hush those who have expected more from him since moving to Real Madrid after very promising spells with Dinamo Zagreb and Inter earlier in his career.

Fading in and out of matches, struggling to dictate play and seemingly unable to completely convince Maurizio Sarri, Kovacic generally looked like a square peg in a round hole.

Although he made 21 Premier League starts, he completed 90 minutes just twice and failed to dislodge Ross Barkley, whose own tale of somewhat unfulfilled potential is perhaps comparable.

But under Frank Lampard this season, Kovacic looks to be on the right track and showed evidence he is stepping out of Jorginho's shadow in Saturday's 2-0 win over Crystal Palace.

For all the praise Lampard's young team – which on Saturday was the youngest it, or any previous Chelsea starting XI, has been in the Premier League – has received this season, their first-half showing highlighted deficiencies.

Vicente Guaita in the Palace goal was barely worked despite Chelsea's dominance, with three of their first eight shots coming from free-kicks, while there were also a couple of long-distance efforts.

A lack of impetus in the final third was laid bare without the suspended Jorginho, as Tammy Abraham only had a solitary shot before half-time.

While Kovacic caught the eye with some powerful runs from deep and Christian Pulisic's trickery on the ball left Palace defenders in knots on a couple of occasions, their general build-up play was a little predictable and the final pass unable to cut through the visitors' packed defence.

Chelsea would have been well aware of how Palace planned to set up. They are notoriously effective away from home, with their record of 11 Premier League wins on the road since the start of last season bettered by only Liverpool, Manchester City (both 18) and Chelsea (14).

Jorginho's usual influence was particularly notable by its absence.

Having been a frequent target of Chelsea fans last season, often booed and jeered by Blues supporters, he has gone about his business very effectively this term.

No player had attempted or completed more passes (865/765) than the Italian in the Premier League in 2019-20 before Saturday, while his 125 passes into the final third was also unmatched, proving there is far more to his game than simply nudging possession on to a team-mate five yards away.

Without Jorginho's vision and incisiveness, Chelsea's attackers were already at a disadvantage.

But, while it wouldn't have been fair to expect Kovacic to fill exactly the same role, he did exhibit solid evidence of his own marked improvement and was crucial in breaking Palace down.

His unique spin on the deep-lying playmaker position ultimately proved vital as Chelsea ended Palace's resistance in the 52nd minute – he darted in off the left flank, skipped past two defenders and prodded a pass through to Willian, whose clever flick released Abraham for an easy finish.

For all Jorginho's ability, it was an action one almost certainly wouldn't have seen from the former Napoli schemer.

Kovacic's role in Chelsea's second was rather more Jorginho, however.

Receiving the ball from the back and just inside his own half, Kovacic noticed Pulisic in space on the left and drove an inch-perfect cross-field pass right to him. He cut inside and found Michy Batshuayi, whose deflected shot sat up kindly for the American, who nodded past Guaita.

Although it wasn't Kovacic's name on the scoresheet, he finished the match leaving little doubt of his growing influence.

If he continues on his current trajectory, the only shrugging from Chelsea fans will come after inspirational performances - he has the capability for such effectiveness to be his norm.

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