N’Golo Kante is the biggest missing piece in Chelsea’s preseason. Based on some substitutes, Maurizio Sarri could be planning a 4-2-3-1 when Kante returns.
Maurizio Sarri is not a man who believes in formations. Formations have and always will be a simplification of something incredibly complex. Even though Sarri would not believe in it, talking about formations can hint at slightly different roles for players which can be useful in discussion.
Occasionally, the difference between two formations is subjective at best. Sometimes it is so slight that it is barely noticeable. But Sarri has been playing with one notable change in the middle during preseason that could hint at things to come.
With Jorginho and Cesc Fabregas, the formation has looked very much like the 4-3-3 Sarri is known for. The third midfielder is inconsequential. But when Fabregas is not on the pitch, the shape takes a more 4-2-3-1 look. This could be because the other midfielders are closer to defensive midfielders by trade. And that could be a hint of things to come when N’Golo Kante returns to Chelsea. Furthermore, some of the players this preseason deserve more playing time. 4-2-3-1 can be the way to incorporate them.
Jorginho’s role is fluid by nature, but generally he stays central. With Fabregas on the pitch, the Spaniard takes up the wider areas of the center. But with Danny Drinkwater or Tiemoue Bakayoko on the pitch instead of Fabregas, the idea changes. Jorginho and Drinkwater/Bakayoko form more of a line with one another as they both take wider areas of the center. The remaining midfielder, usually Ross Barkley or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, stay central and higher up the pitch. That is distinctly a 4-2-3-1 type of set up.
Kante is more similar to Drinkwater and Bakayoko than he is to Fabregas. So it would not surprise at all to see him return and take that position up. So far, Fabregas is probably the most expendable of the go to preseason starting midfielders. That would allow Kante in and give Chelsea some interesting options ahead of the pivot.
The 4-2-3-1 allows for an extra attacker on the pitch, provided the pivot is strong enough and able to create. A duo of Jorginho and Kante would check that box. This preseason, two attackers have really shown above the rest and could be better accommodated in the 4-2-3-1.
The first is Ross Barkley who has already proven capable of playing in a 4-3-3. But putting him farther up would allow him to become more involved in the play and would cover for his lack of speed. Having Ross Barkley higher would also take pressure off of Alvaro Morata to drop in and receive the ball.
But more interestingly is Callum Hudson-Odoi. Hudson-Odoi has been one of if not the best players this preseason. He is capable of playing on either flank but also in the hole behind the striker. His performances this preseason deserve starts. 4-2-3-1 could be the way to accommodate them when Eden Hazard returns.
Either Hazard or Hudson-Odoi could take the center spot. It would likely be academic as the two would rotate often. But having both on the pitch would stretch opposition with little ideas on how to cope with both.
A midfield consisting of Jorginho and Kante in the pivot with some combination of Hazard, Pedro, Hudson-Odoi, Barkley, or Willian ahead could be a truly dangerous sight to behold. Not since the old trio of Hazard, Oscar, and Juan Mata has Chelsea had such a beautiful band of three.
Kante will be the trigger for this change when he returns and it would be an incredibly smart move on Sarri’s part. The 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 are very similar, but 4-2-3-1 would suit Chelsea’s best XI at the moment far better. With that combination, the Blues could lay down an early marker in the Premier League.