Football Manager 2016: Top replacements for Mateo Kovacic

The summer transfer window brings with it a scurry of high-profile transfers across Europe, with the most promising young talent making big-money moves to join the biggest clubs in long-term deals with inflated wages and exorbitant minimum fee release clauses, effectively securing their futures for the next decade. After all, joining the Manchester Uniteds and Bayern Munichs of the world leaves one with very few exit opportunities, especially in this world of massively inflated transfer fees and oil-rich owners all too willing and capable to pound Financial Fair Play rules into submission.

While fans of clubs like Manchester City, who’ve splashed the cash on Sterling and Otamendi, and may yet bring Kevin de Bruyne back to the Premier League, will be drooling with anticipation for the coming season, the tumultuous window of opportunity between June and September will also bring with it a tinge of sadness for those of us who enjoy Football Manager as much as, if not more than, the real thing. Given the game’s spectacular knack for identifying future stars even when they’re 16, us players of the game often identify stars two or three years before they enter the public consciousness and are snapped up by big sides.

Inevitably, the newest version of Football Manager shall leave us unable — for the first six months at the very least, and almost certainly for the first two or three seasons — to buy some old favourites and proven match-winners. Jesus Vallejo, the 18-year-old Spanish center-back who joined Real Madrid in July, is one that comes to mind, and Manchester City’s acquisition of English winger Patrick Roberts and Turkish forward Enes Unal could put them out of reach of managers looking to get them on a permanent basis. With over a week of the transfer window still to go (at the time of writing), Everton’s highly-rated central defender John Stones could well end up at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea or either of the Manchester clubs; regardless of his destination, any move would undoubtedly scupper one’s chances of signing him for the foreseeable future, seeing as all three clubs pay exorbitantly high wages.

Now these players are all great, and I am certain I have completely ignored a number of players who have switched clubs this window and are absolutely brilliant on Football Manager. However, I think it’s fair to say that three transfers over the last 11 weeks have stood out for their ramifications for FM16 and managers’ ability to strengthen their sides. These are — Memphis Depay (PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United), Aleksandr Mitrovic (Anderlecht to Newcastle United), and Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan to Real Madrid).

Not only are were these three footballers incredible on FM15 and FM14 before that, I’d stick a neck out and say they were the best young players in their respective positions. This makes out inability to sign them straight away in FM16 all the more painful. In this article, the first of a three-part series, I’ll briefly take a look at Mateo Kovacic before assessing five potential replacements and why they should be at the top of your shopping list when FM16 is released.

Mateo Kovacic

His excellent Technical and Mental attributes make him the perfect player for almost every role in central midfield.
His excellent Technical and Mental attributes make him the perfect player for almost every role in central midfield.

Most lists of great young midfielders on Football Manager place the Croatian at or very near the top, and rightfully so. I have used him in a couple of saves, signing him for 33 million dollars in 2016 while at Man United in FM14, and he inevitably went on to become the focal point of my teams, orchestrating the game from midfield. He played as either a deep lying play-maker or as a box-to-box midfielder with equal ruthlessness; he once made 25 assists in a season thanks to fantastic Passing, Vision, Anticipation and Composure, although I think the box-to-box role might be his best; capable of making marauding runs carrying the ball from deep, he memorably weaved past five Barcelona players and scored with his weaker foot in an epic European Champions Cup semi-final clash in 2018 (needing a draw at the Camp Nou, we were 2-1 down in the 89th minute, with 10 men, and I was playing a 4-2-4, with a flat four in midfield and no strikers — with hope of progress to the final all but lost, Kovacic produced that moment of magic).

Kovacic was always expensive to sign, but provided guaranteed excellence well into his 30s; his transfer to Real Madrid will make it nearly impossible to sign him in the first couple of seasons, given the six-year contract he is on. The only silver lining for Football Manager fans in this is that the sheer competition for starting spots in Madrid, combined with their propensity to sign top players almost every season in the game, will mean that the Croatian will by no means be guaranteed playing time, which could potentially cause some dissatisfaction. One suggested tactic for those looking to lure Kovacic away from the Santiago Bernabeu would be to regularly praise him during press conferences and at every opportunity available; I’d even suggest testing the waters with a bid every transfer window, to make sure the player knows you’d be willing to move heaven and earth to sign him. Being a “favoured personnel” for a player not even in your squad is a rare luxury, and certainly a factor in signing that player in the future.

Here are some players I would suggest you look at when trying to fill a Kovacic-sized hole in midfield.

James Ward-Prowse

Great Mental attributes for his age, and a very manageable wage.
Great Mental attributes for his age, and a very manageable wage.

The 20-year-old Southampton midfielder is another regular member of lists of the top young midfielders, and while he is not the most brilliant player you’ll see, he is certainly up there with the most consistent. While very good, his attributes are not sensational — his highest score being a 17 for Determination — but that tells you something about the player. Blessed with excellent work rate and capable of playing in several roles in midfield, as the screenshot shows, he’s also very handy behind the striker, and — if utilized well — can get you 10 goals a season from midfield, which is a luxury. In an FM14 save with United, he scored 22 goals in 165 appearances over five seasons at an average rating of 7.10; he gets better and better with age, becoming an intelligent and effective engine in the middle of the park.

He’ll cost you anywhere between 20 and 35 million dollars, but seeing as he’ll be just two years away from the end of his contract, he could be signed for a price on the lower end of that spectrum.

Youri Tielemans

Tielemans matures into a highly creative player with superb Technical attributes.
Tielemans matures into a highly creative player with superb Technical attributes (screenshot from 2022).

Another in a fantastic set of young Belgian superstars in the making, Tielemans is a dead cert to follow in the footsteps of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany, Kevin de Bruyne etc and become one of Europe’s best. This makes it all the more important that you sign him up early. Given his age and superb set of qualities, he will cost you a decent amount of money — I had to fork out 20 million dollars up front and another 10 over 48 months to bring him to Old Trafford in an FM15 save — and while he might not break into your team immediately, the Belgian matures quickly into a fantastic creative outlet.

The screenshot from 2022 shows that Tielemans’ excellent Technique, Vision, Flair, Dribbling, and Long Shots make him slightly more attack-minded than Kovacic, but there are really no like-for-like replacements in the football world; if you’re willing to adjust your system slightly, and bring in a solid defensive midfielder to offer protection for Tielemans, the Belgian will turn out to be a gem, and more than worth every cent.

Ryan Ledson

With the right guidance and training, Ledson matures into a well-rounded and dependable performer.
With the right guidance and training, Ledson matures into a well-rounded and dependable performer (screenshot from 2021).

I haven’t played with Ledson in FM15, but I have little doubt that the highly-rated Everton midfielder will retain his impressive attributes and incredible potential in FM16. The beauty about buying a player with as consistent a set of attributes as Ledson’s are at age 15 is that you can mould him into just about any player you want over time.

While he never becomes the most imposing physical presence, one look at his excellent Technicals (Passing, Free Kicks, Long Shots) and Mentals (Anticipation, Composure, Concentration, Creativity, Decisions, Leadership, Work Rate) tells you that Ledson is well worth the investment, both financially and in terms of the years it takes to groom into the complete midfielder.

My experience working with promising young midfielders like Ledson, Tielemans and another player on this list is that it is always preferable to resist all interest from clubs looking to take them on loan — I once received over 30 loan offers for Tielemans in FM15 — since these players mature best when under careful supervision and highly-tailored training regimes. Like Tielemans and Ward-Prowse, Ledson is a must-have, and can be signed for a much lower transfer fee than the two; at between 6-13 million dollars, he’s expensive for a 16-year-old, but when you’re buying a player for 15 years of consistently excellent service, a fee in that range is an irresistible bargain.

Marco van Ginkel

An attack-minded midfielder whose Mentals and Physicals allow him to slot into a defensive role with comfort.
An attack-minded midfielder whose Mentals and Physicals allow him to slot into a defensive role with comfort (screenshot from 2022).

Like any player capable of replacing Kovacic, the Dutch midfielder currently on loan at Stoke City grows into a complete player with an excellent combination of Mental and Physical attributes across the board. He can play in just about any role in central midfield, even though his best position may just be in the Trequartista role behind the striker, where the positional freedom allows him to dictate the flow of the game in the final third of the pitch. In fact, he is versatile enough to have been a major success as a ball-winning central midfielder at Man United in my FM14 save, with Determination, Concentration, Work Rate and Natural Fitness compensating for average Tackling and Marking.

The beauty with players whose Mental attributes stand out over their Physical and Technical numbers is that they rarely deteriorate significantly, even at 33 or 34, and van Ginkel is undoubtedly one such player. In that FM14 save with United, he scored 37 goals over 196 games, most as a ball-wining midfielder, with an average rating of 7.19. What really makes him a great player to sign is the transfer fee; he is almost guaranteed to be put on the transfer list every season by Chelsea, and despite being worth around 17-25 million dollars, can easily be acquired for seven figures.

Guido Vadala

A technical and tricky midfielder, Vadala shines behind the striker (screenshot from 2022)
A technical and tricky midfielder, Vadala shines behind the striker (screenshot from 2022).

Possibly the most attack-minded player on this list, Vadala starts FM15 as a 17-year-old with huge potential and a market value of 250,000 pounds that barely reflects the player he can become. This screenshot shows that he isn’t the most developed player mentally, but shines on the technical front, with low Bravery, Determination, and Positioning, but more importantly excellent Dribbling, First Touch, Composure, Technique and Passing making him unreliable in central midfield but an absolutely brilliant attacking midfielder. I signed Vadala for my all-conquering Wigan side in FM14, and he scored 37 goals and made 61 assists over four excellent seasons, averaging 7.47 and even finishing runner up for the Balon D’Or on one occasion.

As a young player with relatively ordinary Mentals, Vadala will need a lot of guidance, but, like the other young stars on this list, is well worth the effort. Expect great things from him.

So there you have it: five young midfielders I expect to do very well over the next four to five years, and excellent choices for managers looking to sign someone in the mould of the excellent Mateo Kovacic. I hope you enjoyed this, and I’ll try and write similar pieces about Aleksandr Mitrovic and Memphis Depay in the coming days.

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