When the news broke that Real Madrid were buying Mateo Kovacic from Inter Milan, the general reaction was a rather confused "why?" It's an understandable impulse -- after all, this is the same Real Madrid that already have Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez and Isco filling the two spots he's most capable of filling.
So why did they do it? Well, this is Real Madrid. They're never afraid to splash a ton of cash on a player that doesn't fill any kind of obvious hole. In this case, bringing in a talent like Kovacic actually makes a certain kind of sense.
Madrid's most obvious midfield need is a more defensive-minded presence in the center of the pitch, and that's not really Kovacic's forte. Make no mistake, he's a try-hard, willing-to-make-the-effort player when his side isn't on the ball, but at this stage of his career, his actual effectiveness in defense is often lacking. Instead, he's more of a playmaking mold, either working in the hole behind the striker or starting a little deeper in midfield. It's a role very similar to one in which Madrid employs his fellow Croatian international, Modric.
But there's one thing that Kovacic gives Real Madrid that they were apparently willing to pay a premium for: security.
Modric missed 32 matches across all competitions between two separate injuries last season. James missed another nine when he fractured his foot in the February. Modric's injuries forced Madrid to run Kroos into the ground, leaving him an exhausted and ineffective shell of himself by year's end. James being out forced them to play mix-and-match in their attack before Isco finally rounded into form. Those losses hurt Madrid badly, and both the La Liga title race and Champions League could have looked much different if Madrid's depth had been better in midfield.
Kovacic's presence in the side, and his ability to play either behind the striker or as a deeper playmaker, gives Madrid that missing security blanket in case of a repeat of those problems. He provides them them safety and depth they can rely on, and few quality teams can boast of that on their roster. It also gives Madrid the freedom to consider selling someone next summer, knowing they have a ready made replacement already in the squad.
At the high transfer fee of €32 million, Kovacic makes for an expensive security blanket. With only one other big purchase this summer, Madrid can easily afford to make the splash now and survive under the strictures of Financial Fair Play. At 21 years old, Kovacic is also something of a buy for the future, giving Madrid time to use him in a more depth-oriented role for now, while they figure out what to do with him in a couple of years.
With the incredible potential he's flashed at times over the last two years at Inter, there's a very good chance that Kovacic makes that fee look like a steal. And if he doesn't, it's not a big deal. Madrid can afford to take a gamble like this every now and then without hurting themselves. In the meantime, though, this has all the appearances of a very good move for Real Madrid to make.