For anyone who had caught much of Napoli during the past three seasons, the arrival of Maurizio Sarri in the Premier League during the summer promised to be something of a treat. With his eponymous Sarri-ball, the former investment banker had been beguiling aficionados of Serie A for whom Sarri’s high-energy pressing and breakneck transitions had almost seen them topple Juventus at the end of the 2017/18 season.
However, lest it was assumed Chelsea would be re-created in Napoli’s image under Sarri, he was quick to qualify the fan’s expectations of Sarri-ball 2.0.
‘I don’t want to do another Naples,’ he said earlier in the season. ‘I want to do a good Chelsea. I have to adapt myself to the characteristics of this championship and of (my) players. I am studying my players.’
Of course, in speaking of ‘my players’, Sarri was not entirely correct in differentiating between Napoli and Chelsea. For he had brought one player with him who would be the rock upon which he would build his new church in West London: Jorginho.
So far, the Brazilian-born Italian international has taken the Premier League by storm. Playing in a midfield three behind two more advanced teammates, Jorginho is the pivot around which the rest of the Chelsea midfield is leveraged. Picking up the ball in deep areas either through his own defensive actions or from his midfielders, he recycles it into both wide areas, to his full backs or wingers, or into more advanced areas through incisive passing.
The extent of the Chelsea midfielder’s versatility becomes obvious when you look at his pass radar, presented here courtesy of Benoit Pimpaud. Even on a cursory viewing, the omni-directionality of Jorginho’s radar indicates just how central he is to Sarri’s project at Chelsea.
What is perhaps more interesting, though, is the way the other two midfielders function in this new-look Chelsea side. At Napoli, Jorginho was flanked by Allan, a box-to-box midfielder, and Marek Hamšík, a more advanced midfielder who functioned as the creative catalyst for Partenopei. Within the confines of Stamford Bridge, however, he finds himself with quite a different prospect: a more advanced midfield duo of N’Golo Kante and Matteo Kovacic.
It is in this way, then, that Maurizio Sarri’s ‘good Chelsea’ differentiates itself from his ‘good Napoli’. Where Napoli would attack through central areas, Chelsea attack in the wide spaces, relying on Eden Hazard predominantly but utilising players such as Willian, Pedro and Marcos Alonso, all of whom favour width.
This has meant Sarri can treat the midfield trio in his 4-3-3 as a different beast to the one at Napoli. With a reduced emphasis on attacking, Kovacic and Kante are used as a pressing unit, looking to win the ball back quickly in the event of a turnover to prevent a quick counter-attack but also providing cover behind which Jorginho can dictate play.
This approach becomes clear when you compare the off-ball actions of the three midfielders using Twelve’s player maps (making sure to turn the toggle off ‘Only important actions).
As you can see, Kovacic and Kante’s pressing actions occur in deeper areas than Jorginho’s. This suggests that the Brazilian will only be drawn into defensive pressure when Chelsea are possessing the ball in advanced areas as the deepest midfielder. When the ball is turned over, however, the onus falls onto Kovacic and Kante to win it back on the left and right respectively.
The obvious weakness in this system is the left-hand side of the field, where Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard share a wing and both look to get into advanced areas when Chelsea are on the attack. If Mark Hughes is to get anything out of the game which, given Southampton’s poor run of form this season, is by no means a given, then he would do well to target the space that opens up behind the left back with only David Luiz left to guard it.
This approach is not without its problems, though. Comparing Southampton’s favoured wide players, Nathan Redmond and Mohamed Elyounoussi, you can see that it is Redmond on the left who is the more productive of the two, with Elyounoussi disappointingly un-creative on the right-hand side.
Even at home, Southampton are hardly expected to win this one. If Hughes wants to get something out of the game, then he might be advised to play Redmond on the right—as he did against Liverpool—and target that area in behind the left back.