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Daniel Levy’s Imaginary Shortlist: Mateo Kovacic

Let’s buy Real Madrid’s Croatian midfielder. No, not that one, the other one.

Real Madrid CF v Real Sociedad de Futbol - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

We do a lot of transfer rumor posts here at Cartilage Free Captain, breaking down the validity and likelihood of what we see reported in the papers. But sometimes we like to take a look at the players we’re guessing might be on Tottenham Hotspur’s radar, so we’ve brought back an old series — Daniel Levy’s imaginary shortlist. These are players that Spurs have been linked to previously, or that they should be looking into.

Next up is a Croatian midfielder who plays for Real Madrid and the Croatian national team. No, not Luka Modric (though that’d be great!), it’s the other one: Mateo Kovacic.

The basics

Name: Mateo Kovacic
Age: 23
Team: Real Madrid
Nationality: Croatian
League: La Liga
Primary position: Central midfield
Can also play: Anywhere in the midfield band: CAM, CDM, wide

I’ll be honest: I’ve been tracking Kovacic since he was a teenager playing at Dinamo Zagreb and Luka Modric was still threading through balls for Gareth Bale in Tottenham’s midfield. And while I won’t pretend that I didn’t first discover him as a Football Manager wonderkid (I totally did), I’ve been following his career and coveting him for Spurs for years now. And he’s really freakin’ good.

A precocious and highly technically skilled box-to-box midfielder, Kovacic got his big chance in January 2013 at age 19 when he moved to Inter Milan, where he was a regular starter for a pretty bad Inter side. Real Madrid snapped him up in 2015 for £21m, but he’s been a role player and a substitute at the Bernabeu, scoring one goal and five assists in just 2700 minutes over two seasons. That’s less a mark on his ability than it is a statement on just how good Madrid’s midfield already is: there just aren’t minutes for him, and he’d like more. That’s probably why there are plenty of rumors linking him away from Madrid this summer.

The specifics

If there’s an heir to Luka Modric in Real Madrid’s current side, it’s probably his compatriot, Kovacic. They’re both similar players in a lot of ways: they are excellent box-to-box midfielders that thrive in a deep-lying playmaker role and with a high work rate. They’re both creative dribblers and have excellent vision, they’re both extremely comfortable with the ball at their feet, and are both absolutely brilliant passers. They’re also both about the same (diminutive) height, about 5’9”. The biggest difference is that Kovacic is eight years younger than Modric.

Madrid also seems to recognize the similarities between the two players, as they’ve been holding on to Kovacic as sort of a collector’s item and possible heir-apparent to Luka. There’s a reason to that. Check out Ted Knutson’s stats radar from Kovacic’s last season in Milan:

The one knock on Kovacic is that he isn’t a very prolific scorer. For that matter however, neither is Mousa Dembele, who plays the same box-to-box position that Kovacic would in Tottenham’s lineup. And with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min, and Harry Kane ahead of him, he wouldn’t necessarily have to be.

Kovacic isn’t as strong as Dembele, but he has a similar work rate in midfield and is a better passer. He’d likely provide similar service to the attacking band but would do it in a different way, spraying through-balls and finding pockets of space rather than bullying the midfield the way Moose does. He also possesses an underrated tackling ability, meaning he’s not afraid to get stuck in when the need arises.

I get giddy just thinking about Kovacic in a Mauricio Pochettino high pressing system.

The verdict

Likely price: There are reports saying he could go for £22m-25m, though that seems stupid low. He’s worth twice that.

Team’s willingness to sell: Probably not super high. Kovacic isn’t getting minutes at Madrid, but that doesn’t mean that Zinedine Zidane is willing to part with him. Plus, it’s likely that Madrid will insist on a buy-back clause, something that would make Daniel Levy back away like it’s Kryptonite.

Possibility he ends up at Spurs: Unfortunately, not as high as what we’d probably hope for. Kovacic’s name has popped up in connection to Spurs in recent days, but the originating source is the Daily Star (lol), and has thrown cold water on the rumor saying the links between Spurs and Kovacic are “wide of the mark.” Which is a shame, because he’s exactly what Tottenham needs.

Grade if this transfer goes through: This is a definite A signing for Tottenham. Despite a bench role at Madrid, Kovacic is a really, really good player and would improve Spurs’ midfield depth. He would be instant competition for Mousa Dembele and would get plenty of rotation minutes. He’d also be fan-bloody-tastic in a midfield three, should Pochettino opt to use one. Hell, he’d even be good in the attacking band behind Harry Kane. He’s much better than Ross Barkley and probably would about the same amount of money. I’d even be willing to countenance a buy-back clause for Kovacic, something stupid in the realm of £50m. This would be an ideal signing for Spurs. Why haven’t we bought him already?