On Thursday in Belarus, Maurizio Sarri did something he’s never done before, he put Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the same midfield. Twice before this season the two had been substituted for each other (Huddersfield, Vidi) and once they even shared the pitch (60 minutes against Burnley) but in different positions — RLC played as an emergency forward due to Pedro’s mid-game stomach issues.
So the decision to start the two attacking-minded youngsters (24 and 22, respectively) in midfield together against BATE, flanking either side of non-defensive midfielder Jorginho, was a gamble, Sarri admitted afterwards.
“I think that Ross played a good game but we risked it because in the midfield played at the same moment Loftus-Cheek and Barkley, two very offensive midfielders so it is not easy for me and it is not very easy for them.
“Barkley I think for the moment from the tactical point of view is a step ahead of Loftus-Cheek, because Loftus-Cheek came later [to pre-season training] and in the first part of the season had two or three little injuries so I think it is normal. It was a risk [to play them both], but I wanted to see this situation.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Chelsea FC
They may both be attacking players, and yet the attack still didn’t look fluent against BATE Borisov, who spent much of the match with eleven men behind the ball but were also able to cut through the midfield with frightening ease at times. But Sarri’s not pointing fingers, at least not directly.
Indirectly, and if we’re looking for any hints as to which of the two may be ahead of the other at this point (since it’s unlikely that Sarri’s going to play this combination again anytime soon), we only need to look at which of the two he’s continuing to praise in effusive terms, calling him a “complete midfielder” for the second time in the last couple weeks.
“In the first month I was here, he was in trouble. Then he started to improve in every training, in every match. I am surprised at how quickly he has adapted if I think back to the first month, but not if I think of the last two months.
“I like him very much because he is a complete player. He has physical qualities because he is fast, has resistance, and technically he is very good. He has a good kick with the left and the right foot. He is improving in moving the ball, quicker mentally, and he is improving tactically, so I think he is on the way to becoming a very important midfielder.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Telegraph
Ironically, Barkley hasn’t played his best in his last two starts, with multiple misplaced passes and critical turnovers. But tellingly, his manager is choosing to focus on the positive.
The question then becomes, which of Barkley or Mateo Kovačić is ahead for the third spot in the first-choice midfield next to Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté?
Barkley has scored three goals and dished five assists in fifteen appearances this season, with all three goals coming in his last four Premier League appearances. That’s the same amount of goals that Mateo Kovačić has managed to collect in his last 123 appearances in club football. As @OptaJoe would say, “Contrast.”
But Kovačić also offers better ball retention, crisper passing in general, and a slightly better two-way effort ... at least in theory. He’s only started one of Chelsea’s last four games (3 in the same 4 for Barkley), and didn’t exactly look great in it (vs. Derby County in the League Cup). However, with Barkley going the distance on Thursday, it’s like to be Kovačić’s turn on Sunday.
Let’s see what he can do then, as the three of them — we shouldn’t forget about Loftus-Cheek, even if he’s only third on the depth chart right now! — continue to push each other for playing time.