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Kovacic already proving to be a key player for Manchester City

This summer has been one of the most defining for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. It is his third rebuild, having made clear to those inside and out of the club that their treble win, while historic, is in the past. They are starting again, refreshed, hungry, relentless, but different.

Erling Haaland’s arrival last summer was a huge sign of the new direction. City had largely been playing without a recognised striker since the departure of Sergio Agüero,  but even then his physical presence and sheet force was a complete contrast. Joao Cancelo has been phased out; Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez have gone, too.

Centre back Josko Gvardiol has settled in seamlessly since joining from RB Leipzig. Jeremy Doku promises a lot as a replacement for the latter, particularly on the evidence of their victory over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Sunday.

Doku was an unused substitute but his presence should excite City fans. He’s quick, direct and likes to stretch defences, both back to from and left to right. For long spells in this game, City purposely condensed the pitch, which actually played into Sheffield United’s hands. The Blades sat in a very low block, and with City looking to play narrow, they were easier to contain. That was until Jack Grealish pulled wide and crossed the ball for Haaland to score with a powerful header. Doku can unlock defences like the Blades going forward.

But one of the summer signings really stood out in South Yorkshire. Perhaps he is one of the most underrated signings this summer, not just at City, but in the Premier League generally. Mateo Kovacic’s £30m switch from Chelsea has always been rather understated, but his early performances have shown his quality, not just as a squad player, but as a key player for City going forward. Without Kevin de Bruyne, injured for the next four months, there is a danger that they lack the guile in midfield. But Kovacic stood up and helped drive City to an away win.

In the first half, he was driving forward with the ball and constantly looking to find Haaland without much success. But after the striker scored early in the second half and the game opened up, with the home side coming out to chase a leveller which they got from Jayden Bogle before Rodri’s winner a minute later, Kovacic came into his own. First, he found Haaland with a sumptuous through ball that forced Wes Foderingham into a superb save, before intelligently finding pockets of space to free up Grealish on the left. His performance was simple but incredibly effective; the Croatian has quietly shown he is an ideal midfield option.

Considering the hefty fees being paid for midfielders this summer, as City themselves are finding out with reported quotes for Wolves’ Matheus Nunes and Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze, the Kovacic deal looks better by the week.

Last week, against Newcastle, when there was a consensus that City, tired from their Super Cup excursions just a few days earlier, would struggle, Kovacic was majestic. That night he played in a deeper more defensive role, as Pep Guardiola admitted to altering his tactical plan to cope with the Magpies. He effectively man marked Joelinton out of the game, going a long way to nullify Newcastle’s counter-attacking threat.

This is a crucial point in Guardiola’s City career. He’s won everything, now he has to do it again. The rebuild will take time, and De Bruyne’s injury is a bump in the road, but in Kovacic, they have found an ideal cog in the machine completely under the radar.

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