Chelsea’s campaign this term will probably rely on how much Maurizio Sarri will be able to get the best out from his midfield. In fact, Sarri’s tactical approach stuck with 4-3-3 even at Stamford Bridge.
This formation worked well at Napoli last three seasons and mostly was due to the work of the three central midfielders Allan, Jorginho and Marek Hamsik. Sarri would reply at Chelsea the attacking style that felt pundits and fans falling in love with his Napoli side. That said, both matches against Huddersfield and Arsenal showed Blues must improve in the middle of the field.
To do it, the Italian manager needs his midfielders being able to repeat that high-speed play that Napoli provided. When it comes to the current Chelsea’s midfielders, much has been written about Jorginho, the cornerstone of Sarri’s amazing brand of football at Napoli and a player that new Chelsea’s head coach brought on despite the fact that the Italian-Brazilian midfielder was close to sign for Manchester City. Jorginho quickly changed his heart when his mentor Sarri, joined the Blues.
Although Sarri hopes to insert Jorginho at the core of his team, he still needs of good play by the interior midfielders. Sarri’s midfielder is usually featuring a deep-lying playmaker (Jorginho), a defensive-oriented player (Kanté) and a more attacking interior midfielder.
With Tiémoué Bakayoko who has been let go to Milan and with N’Golo Kanté almost indispensable, it leaves just one starting spot in the middle of the field, that one concerning the offensive midfielder spot.
The competitions will involve Cesc Fabregas, Ross Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and the newcomer Mateo Kovacic. And precisely the arrival of the Croatian midfielder on loan from Real Madrid put Fabregas’ playing time at risk. Despite the fact he has been underutilized at Madrid, Kovacic is a well-regarded player with a lot of skills.
From Fabregas to Kovacic?
In the verge of the match against Arsenal, Sarri told reporters he expects so much from Kovacic and that the 24-years old player “will be very useful” for Chelsea. So, looks clear as Kovacic will be allowed a chance to become a regular starter for the Blues when he will be fit.
Kovacic’s creativity and technical skills are strengths that will provide a boost of Chelsea’s offensive power whilst his defensive attitude, although it is not exceptional, means he should be suited to fit Sarri’s system.
Indeed, we have seen some of this against Arsenal. In fact, although he played just the final third of the game, Croatian midfielder posted an astonish 97% in terms of pass completions. The 42 passes he played showed how much is was involved in Chelsea’s construction phase.
All that said, Fabregas’ playing time looks in jeopardy. Former Barcelona Academy’s product was not part of the team for the opener against Huddersfield, and he also missed the clash Arsenal due to an injury.
It would be interesting to see if he will be able to earn a starting spot at one point within this season but also how the Spaniard will play into Sarri’s 4-3-3 system. The emphasis Sarri put on a quick, possession-football could negatively affect Fabregas, who is a technically gifted player but one that is not particularly strong when it comes to intensity.
In Barkley they trust…so far
In similar ways, Kovacic’s appointment could decrease Barkley’s time with the first team. Sarri deployed former Everton midfielder and, even if he’s maybe a less technical player than Fabregas, he’s able to provide that level of intensity and energy Sarri is looking for.
That said, in the winning 3-0 opener against Huddersfield, Barkley was the less effective of the three central midfielders. It’s not good news for him with the tough competition Barkley is facing for a starting spot and with Kovacic ready to step up.
Barkley barely played under the previous regime since he joined Stamford Bridge last January, mainly due to the injury he suffered. He enjoyed a full preseason this summer, in which he was a starter for Sarri, also in the Community Shield against Manchester City. But that was enough to regain his past shape, so he needs playing time to go back to be the midfielder people admired under David Moyes at Goodison Park. Barkley looked so-so in both Chelsea’s two first Premier League’s games and he was substituted in both matches.
If Barkley will get this needed playing time remains to be seen with competitors as Fabregas, Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek around. Should Barkley be able to regain his fitness condition, he still has skills to play the high-tempo offense and the intensive pressing game Sarri likes.
Last but not least
That’s the same for Loftus-Cheek. Back home after a loan at Crystal Palace, the 22-years old player could impress Sarri with his offensive play. Although Loftus-Cheek looked not perfectly suited for Sarri’s possession game in which all the three central midfielders have to positioned middle of the field providing passing options to the backline, the England international at the latest World Cup in Russia is good enough when it comes to offer presence in the half spaces, which also is pivotal into Sarri’s tactical approach in the offensive third.
Sarri’s football is highly demanding and it requires his midfielders be able to follow strict path when the team is in possession. They have to occupy specific spots in the field in order to provide his team an easy way to get the ball progressing up top. Creating strong connections in possession also allow Sarri’s team to orchestrate a strong counter-pressing when the ball is lost. His midfielders, as his defenders, have to defend moving themselves forwards.
Furthermore, the interior midfielders have to support Jorginho in ball circulation and create strong overloads around the ball carrier but also must to be suited to attack the penalty box. It not ever happened in the first two league games. That said, another key feature of Sarri’s possession game is the use of diagonal passes. Napoli strongly relied on them and Chelsea are expected to do the same.
These diagonal passes are useful to get the ball progressing to the final third of the field and to move the ball from one half-space to the other and, more in general, from the strong to the weak side. Moving the ball through diagonal passes to less congested areas means the receivers enjoy more freedom with the ball at their feet. It also makes harder for the defending team to shuffle horizontally towards the ball.
In Sarri’s football it means that the interior midfielders get the needed time and space to play the ball up front towards Eden Hazard, Álvaro Morata and William (or Pedro). This approach should allow Chelsea a bettter occupation of the final third and an easier access to the penalty box. It also should increase Blues’ scoring opportunities in the same way it did at Napoli for Lorenzo Insigne, Dres Mertens (and Gonzalo Higuain before him) and José Callejón. Unfortunately for Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic still looks as a better option to get this approach working at Samford Bridge.
At the end, Sarri get three different players for the attacking midfielder spot in Fabregas, Barkley, Loftus-Cheek and Kovacic. All of them have their own qualities and all could find playing them through a long season. In what way they will split up the playing time, it remains to be seen. Depending on who will thrive, Chelsea’s midfield could take a different look. However, Sarri’s principles of controlling the game through ball possession, overloading the zone around the ball carrier and quick movements will remain as key part of Blues’ daily game plan.
However, midfielders also have to show more composure and tactical focus when out of possession. That’s wasn’t ever the case against Arsenal, when Unai Emery’s side showed again how much Chelsea’s midfield is friable in transition.
Chelsea’s troubles when it comes to defend against quick counter-attacks could become a problem .in the long run. Chelsea’s midfielders also have to do a better work helping their side to stay more compact and to improve their team pressure in the opposite half. Sarri too acknowledged this after beating Arsenal 3-2 at Stamford Bridge and for sure he will work on in the training ground next weeks.