From the outside, Chelsea don’t seem to currently have any problems; they’re yet to be beaten this season, they’re playing excellent football and they’re just about keeping pace with the dominant leaders Manchester City.
In fact, one aspect in which the champions would cast an envious eye at Chelsea is at the depth of their midfield. Sitting at the base is Jorghino, who City wanted to sign in the summer; he dictates and controls the tempo of the game. Then there is the effervescent energy of Ngolo Kante, shuttling up and down the pitch halting opponent’s attacks. The aforementioned two are mainstays in the midfield trio. Chelsea then have three different options for that last spot in midfield: Mateo Kovacic, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
So far this season, they’ve all had the opportunity to showcase themselves and display the qualities they possess. Positively, they’ve all grabbed their chances with both hands at different points, but who has shone the most and deserves to make that final spot their own?
Mateo Kovacic’s skill set lends itself to the possession domination aspect of Sarri’s style of play. The Croatian often situates himself towards the left side of the pitch, exchanging quick and sharp passes with Eden Hazard and Marcos Alonso. So far this season he has played a total of 585 minutes in the league completing on average about 56.8 passes per 90 minutes as well as 1 key pass. His pass completion rate is also high at 93.1%. Despite his technical ability, Kovacic also gets involved in the physical side of the game and attempts 1.5 tackles per game.
Ross Barkley performs a different role when he is the third central midfielder in Sarri’s team; Barkley often finds himself running beyond the centre-forward when in possession to join attacks and then also without possession to be very high to press the opposition’s defence. His influence at the top end of the field has seen him score three goals as well as assisting three goals so far in the Premier League; add to this another assist in the Europa League, it’s clear to see the 24-year-old is very effective in the final third. In contrast to Kovacic, Barkley is a bit more direct with his passes and often tries to switch play; this has led to the statistic of 1.7 long ball attempts a game.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek hasn’t been afforded the same amount of game time as his other midfield colleagues having only gotten 94 minutes of play from three substitute appearances in the Premier League. He has however played 220 minutes in the Europa League. His breakout performance of the year was the home Europa League game vs BATE Borisov where the youngster managed to get himself a hat-trick. The 22-year-old has an impressive physique and is able to carry the ball through pitch with a lot of ease. In the Europa League, he is completing 2.7 dribbles per game whilst also being fouled at least twice every 90 minutes.
First and foremost, to be equipped at playing to the demands of Sarriball, Sarri wants his midfielders to be able to play smart and short passing combinations all over the field. If we compare the three candidates in terms of their passing abilities Kovacic completes more of his passes than his two colleagues. He is also the most likely of the trio to play a through ball to create scoring opportunities. Barkley doesn’t fare too badly in these metrics either as he comes a close second on these statistics; he also plays slightly more forward passes than Kovacic. A mark against the Liverpudlian is his reliance on long passes, this goes against the philosophy Sarri is trying to create.
The defining feature of the third midfielder in a Sarri system is that player’s goal threat and it is here where Barkley clearly excels above Loftus Cheek and Kovacic. In the league, Barkley has more goals, assists and shots on target than the other two combined. In fact, Barkley and Kovacic have both attempted the same amount of shots but Kovacic’s return from his shots has resulted in absolutely no goals.
Based on the requirements of the third midfielder in a Sarri team, it is clear that Ross Barkley should command that spot as his own for the rest of the season. The Chelsea team, in general, is a team that is lacking in goals at the minute and being able to call on a goalscoring midfielder is vital when the attackers aren’t putting the ball in the net. Although Kovacic outshines Barkley in terms of passing and possession play, Barkley performs in those metrics adequately enough to allow the system to function while also providing the added bonus of goals and assists. Unfortunately for Ruben Loftus-Cheek he hasn’t been afforded enough of a chance to show whether or not he would be a viable option in the midfield three and so his statistics do not measure up to his peers.