Chelsea are looking for a fresh start under newly-appointed manager Maurizio Sarri. The Italian eccentric replaces fellow countryman Antonio Conte and intends to replicate the work he was doing at Napoli for three years. Jorginho has followed him from Naples to help him achieve that.
The first true test for Sarri’s team came against Manchester City last Sunday. Even though the FA Community Shield is not always taken 100 percent seriously, a competitive City side exposed some of the Blues’ weaknesses Sarri has to work on. Most prominently, the pressing which was reminiscent of Napoli’s in the past few seasons did not work as effectively as it has to when the Premier League season starts.
Conte relied on a system with a back three and two high-volume runners on the wings. Sarri, however, immediately implemented a 4-3-3 system, similar to the one he played at Napoli. With the signing of Jorginho, he even has his crucial centre-midfielder from the San Paolo at his disposal, which might look like a promise that Chelsea would have a stable defence going forward. But Jorginho alone cannot provide full stability. The 2-0 loss against Manchester City on Sunday was proof of that.
The Community Shield highlighted Chelsea’s issues
Jorginho seemed unable to hold the team together, as Chelsea lacked the right structure when pressing City. Sarri asked his players to work out of an initial 4-5-1 shape, with five midfielders standing on one lateral line behind centre-forward Álvaro Morata. From there, the two more offensive-minded midfielders in Ross Barkley and Cesc Fàbregas paced forward and attacked the two City centre-backs, while Morata man-marked Fernandinho.
Sarri’s plan was obvious. He wanted to give City no room to breathe in the middle of the park and take some of the most dangerous weapons away from Pep Guardiola. While it seemed like a smart move to load the centre, Sarri made the mistake of overlooking the importance of staggering players.
One flat line of five is not able to cover enough space vertically. The fact that either Barkley or Fàbregas—or sometimes both—ran up high to apply pressure on City’s centre-back played against Jorginho. He could not give his team-mates cover and attack the opposing centre-midfield simultaneously. While the Italian 26-year-old was certainly a standout at Napoli and had a considerable share in the success Sarri enjoyed there, he was not holding everything together all by himself.
Last season, he worked well with Allan who usually covered the right side of the pitch, with Jorginho moving a bit more to the left, as the offensive-minded Marek Hamsík left his initial position in the left half-space and joined forces with the likes of Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne. The defensive actions of both Jorginho and Allan in their UEFA Champions League group stage matches of last season show how the two basically split the field and collaborated to protect the back line.
It might come down to the system and how Sarri set it up against City. But since Chelsea’s pressing looked almost identical to Napoli’s, the issue could continue if Jorginho and his colleagues in midfield do not figure out how to work well together and support each other. City’s first goal on Sunday emphasised some of the extent of the bad teamwork in the Blues’ centre.
Moments before Sergio Agüero scored, Jorginho moved up a few yards to man-mark Fernandinho, pointing behind him towards Bernardo Silva while doing so. Barkley remained unsure whether he should go to the inside and cover for Jorginho. One simple vertical pass to Silva and a quick lay-off opened up plenty of space for Phil Foden who could run through Chelsea‘s half almost unchallenged.
In coaches’ speech, it comes down to group-tactical fundamentals, meaning that a certain group of players have to understand each other and know what the others do or intend to do in order to act appropriately. Jorginho expected his team-mate to pick up Silva behind his back, while he did the same for Morata who tried to pressure John Stones instead of marking Fernandinho. One tiny mistake can be enough to end up on the losing side, especially against high-level opponents like Manchester City.
After City’s first goal, the Premier League champions continued to be patient in build-up plays, often waiting until Chelsea’s midfielders would move forward and expose critical zones through which Silva and Foden could march and advance their team’s field position. Jorginho, Fàbregas, and Barkley did not seem on the same page. If one cog does not work, the entire transmission stops working properly.
How will Jorginho work for Chelsea?
Jorginho is a rather pro-active centre-midfielder who, unlike Casemiro or Axel Witsel, does usually not wait in front of the back four and smartly fill up the gaps at the offside line. He prefers to win the ball higher up the pitch or at least shield the defence by pushing the team in possession towards the fringes of the field.
The x-factor, of course, is N’Golo Kanté who was Chelsea’s best player last season and personifies the needed defensive authority in midfield. On the one hand, both Kanté and Jorginho together on the pitch may seem redundant and could leave someone like Fàbregas without a spot in the starting XI. On the other hand, Kanté has the instincts to clean up behind Jorginho right from the start if the latter cannot force the turnover in the first or second phase of pressing. Later in the season, both should have developed an understanding for each other and become more flexible.
Usually, a coach can then start to change the positioning of his midfielders more frequently to put emphasis on certain weaknesses opponents show. For instance, instead of Jorginho moving up all the time, he could stay back in the left-half-space and wait for Kanté to force passes through the middle by making outside-in runs at the opposing midfielders. Jorginho already knows what is going to happen and anticipates the route of the pass. He intercepts and initiates a fast-paced transition attack through the side that is not loaded with players. That is just one of many imaginable examples.
Apart from some of the structural issues — like when Chelsea switched to a 4-diamond-2 press and left the wings exposed against City — it comes down to Sarri’s ability to teach his midfielders how these micro-processes can run smoothly.