“English football has an exceptional holding midfielder,” said Pep Guardiola in August. If he had got his way, that outstanding anchorman would be a Manchester City player. Instead a player Guardiola was confident of signing will face them. Jorginho was reunited instead with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. Rather than building a side around the Italy international, the Catalan will instead attempt to stop him constructing attacks in Chelsea vs Manchester City on Saturday.
Guardiola’s argument that Jorginho is outstanding is indisputable in one respect: the former Napoli man stands out in the statistics, topping the charts for touches and passes this season. He broke the Premier League record for most passes attempted against West Ham, attempting 180 in a performance that earned him 3,086 points on Twelve’s system. Look at Twelve’s diagram of his display that day (and untick ‘only important actions’ to see everything he did) and it indicates how pivotal he was.
In contrast, he has been at his least effective in the two games when opponents have put a persistent, quick player around him; if not man-marking him, then certainly not allowing him to run the game.
Everton’s Richarlison performed that function in a 0-0 draw, Tottenham’s Dele Alli in Spurs’ 3-1 win. Jorginho only merited 937 points and only attempted 51 passes two weeks ago, a sign of Alli’s influence. A contrast between his maps in those two London derbies shows how much quieter he was.
All of which could give Guardiola a dilemma. Sergio Aguero has a prolific record against Chelsea, with seven goals in as many games, but whether or not the Argentinian is not fit, Gabriel Jesus, who the City manager believes is the best at high pressing in the world, could be a better fit for the task of stifling Jorginho. An alternative might be to use Raheem Sterling, who has begun on the left in City’s major away games so far, as a false nine.
It may suit City in another sense. Because Sarri’s 4-3-3 can be quite narrow, especially in midfield, and because N’Golo Kante has operated further upfield than many think is right, it could leave Cesar Azpilicueta isolated against Leroy Sane.
The German scored in strange fashion with his chest against Watford on Tuesday, but was brilliant in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Bournemouth, when he helped set up two goals, and has become more important now Benjamin Mendy is no longer available to add width on City’s left.
Looking at Sane’s display against Eddie Howe’s team, and again unticking ‘only important actions’, indicates how closely he stuck to the touchline until he got into the final third. It presents a challenge to Chelsea: does Kante go wider or Willian or Pedro drop deep to assist Azpilicueta?
Mendy’s absence has another impact. One of the fundamental differences between managers who both have a marked preference for 4-3-3 can come in the deployment of full-backs. Were the Frenchman fit, he would be likely to overlap in the manner Marcos Alonso does for Chelsea. Yet with Mendy injured, Guardiola should use an alternative strategy that worked well at Stamford Bridge last season.
He can bring his full-backs infield to play as old-fashioned wing-halves, as David Alaba and Philipp Lahm did for Bayern Munich. Fabian Delph, a converted midfielder, in effect joined Fernandinho as a second holding player when City won at Chelsea in September 2017.
As a map of his contributions that day shows – again untick ‘only important actions’ to see them all – much of his work came in territory he used to police as a midfielder. He was a hybrid player, enabling City to play with a back four without the ball and in a 3-2-2-3 formation with it.
Oleksandr Zinchenko played in a similar area in City’s Champions League draw in Lyon and it marks a difference between the teams: whereas Jorginho is the lone holding midfielder for Chelsea, City can have two when in possession, even though one is nominally a defender.
It is one of the factors that may make the league leaders favourites: subduing Fernandinho is less of an achievement if Delph is alongside him to aid their build-up. Because if everything at Chelsea goes through Jorginho, City’s play is a little more varied. Perhaps it explains why Jorginho is more important to Chelsea than he would have been to City, which in turn could account for his decision to choose London over Manchester.