Mateo Kovacic is a perfectly decent 29-year-old midfielder, but he can’t really have expected a nice trophy-guaranteeing move to Man City, can he?
There is, in general, a reluctance to acknowledge the role luck plays in all major sport.
You’ll hear the gripes about a team of lucky bastards and spawny victories and how this team or that team didn’t deserve this or that, but it’s the sort of thing normally reserved for the kind of resolutely one-eyed fan who feels an inexplicable yet overpowering need to ring up Chris Sutton or Robbie Savage to talk about it all on the radio.
“They were so lucky.”
“We were so unlucky.”
Mainly that stuff is just salty balls. But luck plays a bigger part in most players’ careers than they would care to admit. That injury at the wrong time, being out of contract at the right time, missing that game, getting a recall for that game. Football, and all sports, are built on a foundation of thousands and thousands of countless sliding doors moments that have brought this group of humans to this particular spot at this particular time.
If we’re honest, we set about down this road of considering the role of luck in the micromanaged world of elite professional sport while watching David Warner edge and play-and-miss and edge and, fair enough, occasionally absolutely smash his way to 50 in the Ashes at Lord’s. Then we started thinking about Mateo Kovacic and decided the Croatian might be even luckier than spawny bastard Australian opening batters who are somehow still batting and why won’t they just get out ffs like our batters do and oh, look at that, he’s been bowled. Good.
Anyway. Mateo Kovacic. Like fictitious schoolchildren who enrage right-wing pundits, Kovacic must identify as a cat. Because he’s landed right on his feet, hasn’t he? Yeah? You see? As good as one of Thomas Muller’s, that.
Anyway. Mateo Kovacic. The spawny bloody get.
Now we have no specific beef with Kovacic. He’s a very decent midfielder and fair play to him. But getting a move to this Manchester City team at 29 years old almost entirely due to being in the right place at the right time? What an absolute result he’s had there. We’re not even mad (we are, obviously, irrationally so), we’re delighted for him (we’re not, obviously, we’re enormously rattled).
He is the oldest outfield player Pep Guardiola has signed for City since his first summer at the club when he bought in Nolito alongside, among others, John Stones, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and most significantly for us Ilkay Gundogan.
While Nolito (still going strong at 36 and last seen failing to keep UD Ibiza in the Segunda Division) managed only a solitary season at the Etihad, Gundogan became an at first underrated and under-acknowledged but in due course rightfully hailed cornerstone of Pep’s great City sides.
He leaves having won the lot and been absolutely vital to huge chunks of it, most notably with his two goals on the final day of the 2021/22 season against Villa when City appeared to be bollocksing things right up.
Guardiola really didn’t want him to leave, but the replacement is an eye-catching one. Kovacic shares Gundogan’s ability to go under-appreciated and unnoticed, but not his ability to score wildly significant goals. Gundogan’s two goals in that Villa game, for instance, match any individual season tally for Kovacic since 2014 when he somehow got eight of the things for Inter. He scored four league goals in 142 games for Chelsea.
So he is no like-for-like replacement. He’s not City’s Mr Right, but their Mr Right There.
He won’t replace what Gundogan brought to the table for City, but there’s also obviously not a single chance City would have signed him had Gundogan accepted a new deal and remained at the Etihad.
It was an opportunistic piece of work from City, taking advantage of the Chelsea fire sale, and it may well prove a fantastically shrewd bit of work from a club that for all its absurd wealth has never been shy of a pragmatic bit of business when the opportunity and/or need arises.
But Kovacic surely can’t believe his luck. He won’t have been expecting this, will he? Surely. He’s gone from an underwhelming season in a woefully underperforming Chelsea side to the near guarantee of trophies and glory with City, and he’s done it almost entirely by just happening to be right there at the right selling club in the right playing position at the right moment.
At a time when his fellow Chelsea outcasts are being packed off to the Saudi retirement home or desperately hoping for Manchester United to actually come up with the cash to buy them, Kovacic is already safely ensconced at the best football team with the best football coach in the world.
We’d say good luck to him, but he’s already had plenty of that. Genuinely hope he scores 15 goals next season now, just for the sheer crack of it.