If the biggest story of Chelsea’s season thus far has been the rise to prominence of so many young players who have come through the club’s Academy, then who better to assess their progress than Mateo Kovacic?
Nobody in our squad has achieved so much at such a young age. His goal on his senior debut for Dinamo Zagreb made him the youngest scorer in Croatian league history, at 16 years and 198 days old. Three months after his 17th birthday, he took the armband for the first time. Two months later, he started a Champions League group stage game against Real Madrid (a narrow 1-0 loss). His goal against Lyon in December 2011 means he is the second-youngest player to ever score in that illustrious competition.
Kovacic’s performances in his homeland and on the European stage earned him a big-money move to Inter Milan at 18. He was still that age when he made his Croatia debut in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Balkan rivals Serbia, shining alongside Luka Modric in central midfield. He had just turned 20 when he played three times at the 2014 showpiece in Brazil, including the opening game against the hosts.
Real Madrid came calling when he was 21. By the time he left the Bernabeu to join Chelsea three years later, initially on loan, he had won the Champions League three times, La Liga once and finished as a runner-up in the 2018 World Cup.
‘I can help, but the young guys really have a great mentality, they don’t need too much help,’ Kovacic replies modestly when we put these achievements to him and ask what advice he can pass on to the likes of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham.
‘They are doing great, they saw the pressure that is to play for Chelsea, they know the club already. They have been here for more than 10 years.
‘For me it was difficult when I was young to come to big clubs, maybe because the coach didn’t give me the confidence, like our coach gives to them. If you played one bad game you’re on the bench. It’s a different thing here. The coach gives them the confidence, and they pay it in the pitch. They play really good, they are working hard, and great mentality from the young guys I have to say.’
Kovacic notes the need for rotation means nobody is guaranteed a spot in the starting XI, and managing periods when you’re not in the team is one of the challenges young players in particular must learn to deal with, even if it does not get any easier in time.
The 25-year-old, so impressive in Chelsea’s midfield this season, is relishing his time in the Premier League. He calls it the best in the world, genuine praise from someone who has played at the top level in Italy and Spain.
‘I remember my first game from the beginning, against Bournemouth at home. They were strong guys, and the referees don’t usually give the fouls. But that’s good for me now! I like it. It’s a tough game. But you can really enjoy it when you have great players around you.’
His role in Frank Lampard’s dynamic young side this season is giving him extra satisfaction, as is the relationship he has built up with the boss. For all the vital work Lampard has done with the emerging talent this season, it seems he has also relished trying to get the best of our no.17.
‘It’s been nice, nice of course,’ says Kovacic of life under Lampard.
‘Now I see why he was such a great player. His mentality is really strong. That’s what he wants to bring to us: to have a strong mentality, a winning mentality. He always won a lot of trophies.
‘He has a great connection with every player. He is a great guy, he likes to joke, he likes to laugh. He’s the perfect teacher for us. We need to learn from him, and for now we are enjoying it, he is as well enjoying it, so it’s a nice connection.
‘Now the moment is good, when the tough moments come it will be a test for us and for him, but we need to keep training as we are doing. We are working really hard. Four months he has been here, and every training was hard, and that’s important being at such a great club like Chelsea.’
So, Kovacic stresses, is winning trophies. Silverware is something he has become accustomed to, and he picks out our Europa League triumph as his most special Chelsea moment yet. He performed superbly in Baku, but that is behind him now as he looks forward to the exciting months ahead.
‘I don’t think about what I have achieved or what I have to achieve; I think about what the team has to achieve. That’s obviously trophies.
‘Chelsea is a club that has always won trophies, needs to win trophies, and this year we need to go for everything. Then what happens, happens.’