Maurizio Sarri’s arrival from Italy kicked off a string of changes at Chelsea in the summer. The most prominent one was the football on the pitch. Sarri wasted no time in setting up in his preferred 4-3-3 formation, a system in which the two wide midfielders shoulder a crucial role. The likes of N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, and Ross Barkley have played in the ‘number 8’ position. Have they been good enough for Chelsea? The following statistical analysis will determine just that.
Let’s look at the defensive numbers first. In interceptions, N’Golo Kante makes 2 per game. This is a highly respectable number, considering that Chelsea’s average ball possession is 61.7% in the league. However, Kovacic (0.36) and Barkley (0.31) don’t make many, and more than 100 midfielders in the league better their tally.
Coming to tackles, Kante leads the pack again. He attempts 4.8 per game, whereas Kovacic and Barkley attempt 3.3 and 1.3 per game. Again, more than 100 midfielders better Barkley’s tackling numbers. Kante makes 2.13 blocks per game, and Kovacic and Barkley don’t even cross 1 per game. The Frenchman is the clear winner in clearances, and players have dribbles past him the least. These stats are backed up by the eye-test; Kante clearly gives the better defensive output, and by a long margin.
Goals and assists are everything, right? The trio of Kante, Kovacic, and Barkley have 6 goals and 7 assists to their name combined. They have contributed directly to just 13 goals in totality. Barkley leads them with 6, followed by Kante with 5, and Kovacic on 2. The Croatian is yet to score for his new club. To put that into perspective, Paul Pogba, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and David Silva have contributed to 13, 10, and 8 goals respectively.
Why don’t they score many goals? Simply put, they don’t take many shots. Barkley’s 1.69 attempts per game are the most, followed by Kovacic on 1.29 and Kante on 1.19 respectively. Around 50 midfielders take more attempts than Kante and Kovacic. To put these numbers into perspective, Callum Chambers, Fabinho, and Fernandinho all take more shots than Kante and Kovacic. All of those play in considerably deeper positions.
Goals aside, why don’t they have many assists? Simply put, they don’t create many chances. Kante creates 1.5 chances per game, followed by Kovacic on 1.3 and Barkley on 0.6. The clubs around Chelsea in the table have maestros like David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Christian Eriksen pulling the strings. Meanwhile, Barkley is not even in the top 100 for chances created.
Which is the optimal combination for now?
Kante seems to be performing the best, even though he is not playing in his preferred position. Arguably the Frenchman’s output is not optimal due to the altered position. But he’s ready to take on for the team, and he’s still better than most in the role. His defensive contribution is expectedly high, and he has grown into his attacking game.
Kovacic has settled in well, and his ball retention and circulation is really good. But his impact fades in attacking positions. His shooting is just not up to the mark, and his creativity is inferior as well. Barkley, on the other hand, is just like the opposite of Kovacic. He gives the ball away at times and does not defend with great intensity. But he gets forward well and has an eye for creating as well as scoring.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek also deserves a mention here. Injuries have troubled him, and Sarri has played him in a wide attacking role often when fit. Loftus-Cheek’s profile suits the midfield role, and he is definitely one to consider alongside Kovacic and Barkley.
Kante is a lock in midfield, and Kovacic and Barkley are vying for the remaining spot. The Croat slightly edges it, due to his stability. Jorginho is arguably the only player who fits the central role at the club, so his place is assured.
What does the future hold?
The current personnel should be enough for Chelsea to secure a top-four finish, which would cap off a satisfactory debut season for Sarri. But if the Bridge is to witness a serious title tilt next season, changes are needed. Midfield gems like Houssem Aouar, Tanguy Ndombele, and Nicolo Barella are emerging, and Sarri will have his eyes on them. Chelsea’s midfield is by no means perfect for Sarriball, and something has to change in the near future to alter it.