Times are changing at Chelsea and change is never easy, simple, or quick. The Blues have done alright with Sarri’s new style so far, but there is room for improvement.
The switch away from Conte’s famous three-man backline to a back-four is a massive shift for the entire squad, and so is the new midfield with three men regularly on the pitch, instead of the constant change between two- and three-headed units under Conte last season. Even the attacking front, while keeping the “trident” of three forwards has changed in its patterns.
Looking closer, a lot of focus has (rightfully) been on Jorginho. Chelsea’s big-money outfield signing of the summer, The Metronome of Napoli under Sarri, Jorginho has taken no time at all in showing what he can do with (and without) the ball at his feet.
Unlike Cesc Fàbregas, his spiritual ancestor as the conductor of the Chelsea midfield, Jorginho is constantly moving up and down, left and right, while also commanding his teammates and organizing the play. A true conductor, in every sense, dictating play with the ball and shaping play without it, especially through the middle of the park. Here’s a video that illustrates this facet of Jorginho’s game that doesn’t immediately come across on first viewing when our eyes (and the cameras) are only drawn to the ball.
That’s all well and good, but Jorginho’s deployment means that Chelsea have shifted N’Golo Kanté from the position where he became the best midfielder in the world, the Premier League’s Player of the Year, and even a Ballon d’Or contender, finishing 8th in 2017.
With Kanté pushed further forward and to the right, Jorginho is the last man in midfield, a role usually reserved for strong, quick, unbeatable ball-winners. But Jorginho will never be confused for a Kanté or a Makélélé or even a Mikel. That has led to some criticism already — “defensively fragile” in the “physical” Premier League achievement unlocked! — so let’s take a closer look at that situation.
While Jorginho’s first days in England have quickly painted him as a virtual training cone without the ball, his numbers in Italy show otherwise. He is not as strong as Kanté — few, if any, would be! — but he is far from useless. Of course, statistics never tell the full story, especially in football and especially when it comes to defending, but here is evidence at least of effort and intent.
Acting as the deepest of Napoli’s central triumvirate, Jorginho played less of a role in pressing than Marek Hamšík and Allan, the men who most often played ahead of him in midfield, but still racked up some good numbers, averaging over 4 tackles per game in the last three years. His interceptions and blocks — perhaps even more telling indicators — are notable as well, even as they appear to be trending down.
Sarri’s system defends from the front and emphasizes ball retention, so the number of defensive actions will likely be lower than for more reactive, defensive teams. But it worked in Italy, and Napoli were not only very good going forward, but also in protecting their goal.
This video from YouTuber Nouman gives a good and quick overview of Jorginho’s playstyle, showing how Jorginho is the exact “No.8” that every team playing a possession-heavy tactic needs. He has the intelligence to pick passes opening up spaces, while also being in the right place and in the right time to make an intervention off the ball — and not give up fouls while doing so.
You might say that none of that was on display when Arsenal ran riot through the Chelsea ranks for 15 minutes on Saturday. But that was a collective failure rather than an individual one. Jorginho made mistakes, but for what he does to be truly effective, he needs the rest of the team around him to function well, as well. Chelsea are still getting used to Sarri-ball; breakdowns will be inevitable.
In Sarri’s system, instead of simply soaking the pressure, Chelsea will have to be more proactive. This is also where Jorginho will shine, by being the team’s main outlet, always available, always ready, and always having a picture in his head of how the play needs to develop.
To enable all this to work perfectly, we’ll have to find the analogues to Allan and Hamšík. Presumably, they will be Kanté and Kovačić, respectively, even if Ross Barkley has had a few chances so far for the latter and where Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been deployed a couple times as well. (It’ll be interesting to see where Fàbregas and Drinkwater will fit in.)
Allan was the defensive force that we all know Kanté can be, while Hamšík was the bigger threat going forward, dribbling, creating, shooting, and Kovačić can certainly shine in those aspects as well.
So far, it’s mostly going according to plan. The midfield balance is developing as players become fit and more familiar with the system. Jorginho’s already there, just waiting for the rest to catch up. We’ll have to have some patience, but it should work out in the end.
And if it does, we just might celebrate a few trophies in the near future.