Statistics do not always reflect talent in sport. After three years as a Chelsea stalwart, with four goals in 121 appearances and thrown a golden lifeline in the autumn of his career by his old boss Jose Mourinho, Nemanja Matic has proven to be one of the best midfielders to come from the Balkans. As Matic settles in at Old Trafford, another Balkan midfielder could, quite rightly, be forgiven for sitting at home in the summer of 2017 and scratching his head, wondering why he never reached the top tier of midfielders.
Nemanja Matic has just completed a move from the Premier League champions to Manchester United for a fee of £40m. For this amount, United are receiving a player that, on paper, is nowhere near the standard of Niko Kovač.
Standing at 5’9 and weighing 75kg, Kovač is not the towering wall of a player that Nemanja Matic is, but he more than made up for his lack of stature with his versatility. During his four years at Hertha BSC in the German 2.Bundesliga (second tier) he made 148 appearances and scored 15 goals. Compare that to Nemanja Matic’s four goals in 121 appearances. Where did Kovač go wrong?
He started his senior career in Germany’s third league tier in 1990 with Hertha Zehlendorf. From this he would eventually go on to captain the Croatian national side at two major international tournaments and be among the best Croatian players the game has seen in recent years.
He spent much of his career working his way through the German divisions and striving to play in the top flight. Even after such a successful spell at Hertha BSC, it would take another six years of grinding year in year out for Kovač to reach the German Bundesliga, joining Bayer Leverkusen.
The Croatian’s precision passing and midfield presence was needed in Leverkusen after they finished 14th in the Bundesliga. Kovač was a key player in the Leverkusen engine room, playing 32 games and scoring three goals, helping to push them up the table to a 2nd place finish and Champions League qualification.
Despite such a successful debut season in the Bundesliga, Kovač found himself warming the bench for much of the following two seasons following a knee injury. As a result, his following two seasons were less successful leading him to blow the final whistle in Leverkusen.
After his time at Leverkusen, Kovač played for four different clubs in ten years. He was not unsuccessful at any of these clubs by any means, as he made 229 appearances and scored 32 goals in total.
Despite only playing for Hamburger SV for two seasons (1999-2001), he still managed 12 goals in 55 games for Die Rothosen. A good record for a defensive midfielder by any standards.
Bayern Munich was a logical step forward in his development as a player but he failed to make a big impact and couldn’t push the likes of Owen Hargreaves and Thorsten Fink out of the squad. Right place, wrong time.
Although Kovač didn’t play as much as he would have liked to in Munich, though he did pick up four pieces of silverware while he was there (Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and two Intercontinental Cups).
After Bayern came spells with Hertha BSC, now a Bundesliga side, and Austrian Bundesliga team Red Bull Salzburg. Both periods lasted just three seasons each and he decided to end his playing career in Salzburg and start coaching.
Kovač spent most of his career travelling around the Bundesliga trying to establish himself as a club great. It was becoming apparent for him though at age 34 that if it hasn’t happened yet it was probably never going to. It was after his third season in Salzburg that he decided to cut his losses and hope for better luck coaching.
Kovač worked his way to assistant coach at Salzburg before moving on to one of the greatest honours bestowed upon a coach, the chance to coach your home nation in a major tournament.
Having captained the side at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 he was given the responsibility of babysitting the U-21 team and getting them to the U-21 Euro 2015. Despite relative failure at the event, he was given the role of caretaker manager and led Croatia at the 2014 World Cup. This was as far as he was going to take them, however, as he was sacked in 2015.
Given Kovač’s love affair with the Bundesliga it was unsurprising that he would come crawling back and was appointed manager at Eintracht Frankfurt in 2016, a club in the midst of a relegation battle. He used all his experience built up over 20 years exploring every crack and crevice of the league to save their season.
Kovač is currently coaching in Frankfurt and even though it was not the easiest of journeys for him in the Bundesliga, here’s hoping he can pass on his knowledge to the next generation of midfield warriors.