CHELSEA manager Maurizio Sarri would not have signed Mateo Kovacic had he known how good Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley are.
That is the opinion of former Arsenal defender Martin Keown.
Chelsea signed Kovacic on a season-long loan on transfer deadline day to bolster their midfield options.
Sarri plays a possession-based style of football and Kovacic’s ball retention and vision, which were visible during Croatia’s run to the World Cupp final, were deemed useful assets.
The 24-year-old quickly became a fixture of Sarri’s starting XI, but is now facing fierce competition for his spot.
In Sarri’s system, other summer signing Jorginho marshals the base of the midfield, performing a quarterback-like role.
Two midfielders – one of which the irreplaceable N’Golo Kante – then play ahead of the Brazilian and are afforded more licence to attack.
Kovacic hasn’t borne much fruit in the opposition half, however, producing no goals and one assist for the Blues in 12 appearances.
His position has recently come under threat from Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, with the former scoring in Chelsea’s last three league games and Loftus-Cheek netting a Europa League hat-trick last week.
Both Englishmen are receiving clamour from the media and public to be given more minutes, and Keown believes signing Kovacic has now become a regret for Sarri.
“I honestly believe that had Maurizio Sarri known just how good Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were, Chelsea would not have taken Mateo Kovacic on loan,” Keown said on the Daily Mail.
“It’s nice problem for Sarri to have. You cannot drop N’Golo Kante so there are three players fighting for one midfield berth.
“If Chelsea had to make a choice between Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek, I would rather send Kovacic back to Real Madrid than send Loftus-Creek out on loan.”
Keown, who won three Premier League titles with Arsenal in his playing days, went on to recall the incredulity which came over him when he first saw Barkley play.
“Barkley is one of the best players [England] have produced in terms of technical ability,” he said.
“I will never forget the first time I saw him play. He was on loan at Sheffield Wednesday and I spent the whole match trying to work out if he was right or left-footed.
“He took one corner with his right, then later in the game took one from the other side of the pitch with his left.
“But talent can only get you so far. Now, the penny has dropped for him. He knows how to get the best from that talent. He knows where he needs to be on the pitch to maximise his ability.
“Maurizio Sarri is getting the best from him by playing him in an advanced midfield role. It suits all of his qualities and gets him into the final third often so he can work his magic.”