Chelsea: Jorginho benefits as much as anyone from Maurizio Sarri’s changes

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24: Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur is challenged by Jorginho of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on November 24, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24: Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur is challenged by Jorginho of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on November 24, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images) /

Jorginho had his best performances of the season against Tottenham in the Premier League and against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final. Despite coming to Chelsea for the sole purpose of implementing Maurizio Sarri’s system, Jorginho is better when Sarri tried something new.

Chelsea’s game against Tottenham was as much a pleasant departure from the norm for Jorginho as it was for the rest of the team. The midfielder had a season-high six tackles; matched his season-high in interceptions; and was one shy of his Chelsea best in dribbles and clearances. He also matched his second-lowest number of passes for the season.

That last one may seem an odd thing to praise for a player Maurizio Sarri demanded and Chelsea bought specifically for his ability to produce a high volume of passes at the centre of Sarriball. But this was the game in which Sarri adapted his eponymous scheme to play – with his job on the line – a system better suited to his individual players and the team which he inherited. Piling on the irony, that system masked Jorginho’s weakpoints far better than regular Sarriball plays to his strengths.

Chelsea played the same usual XI in the usual 4-3-3 against Tottenham. The most significant change in their structure on the pitch was how much more compact they kept their shape. The back four limited themselves to the width of the penalty area. They also reduced the space between their lines, especially between defence and midfield.

By tightening the structure horizontally and vertically, Sarri acknowledged the Blues were not going to be playing the fast expansive passes of his Napoli sides. Not against any Premier League side, but certainly not against Tottenham. This realization came six months too late, but better late than never. This was hardly a sacrifice, though, for anyone other than his most YouTube-addled devotees. Everyone else recognized that by taking away the near-impossibility of playing a la Napoli, they denied Tottenham the opportunity to play similarly.

The narrow defence and closer lines brought everyone closer to Jorginho. This put Jorginho under the defensive umbrella created by N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, the centre-backs and Cesar Azpilicueta. Rather than standing alone in space as opponents target him with overloads because they know he is not defensively strong, Jorginho was surrounded by the world’s best defensive midfielder, a strong anti-counter-attacking midfielder and a top full-back.

Because he was not exposed, he could not be targeted and therefore he could not be the weak link in Chelsea’s defensive structure. More than that, he was in a position to contribute to the defensive actions of those around him. As Tottenham tried attacking through the middle, Jorginho was right in the mix to pick up loose balls, make tackles and intercept passes through a tight crowd.

In addition to the changes in shape, Chelsea also changed their approach to the game. They had only 46% possession, creating offence on counter-attacks for most of the game.

Chelsea did not rely on Jorginho for playing the ball out from the back, which meant the forward and midfielder marking him were effectively out of the play. By avoiding their long spells of possession they minimized the opportunities for Tottenham to read Jorginho’s next move in the circuit, which are a frequent source of pressure and turnovers.

Instead, Jorginho connected the play in short, quick bursts. His usual way of passing was more consistent with the overall tenor of Chelsea’s possession and offence. And if the ball did end up back with Tottenham, he was not the only midfielder nearby to stifle a counter-attack.

Jorginho is at Chelsea strictly for his ability to implement the only system Sarri knows and is willing to play. Their fortunes are more closely linked than any other coach and player. Jorginho, Sarri and Sarriball have all struggled in the Premier League for the same reasons.

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Perhaps without even trying or realizing he was doing it, Maurizio Sarri’s changes first against Manchester City and then fully against Tottenham helped fit the suit to Jorginho. The games since then have been a reversion to by-the-book Sarriball, and Jorginho’s performances have settled back into those habits.

For as much as Sarri wants Jorginho to be his “as is” player from the Napoli days, in a new team in a new league with a new set of challenges, Jorginho needs to have his strengths maximized and his weaknesses compensated for as much as anyone else. Sarri has the players he needs to mask Jorginho’s short-comings while making the most of his talents. However, that involves Sarri acknowledging the former and accepting that his system in its usual state glosses over such trade-offs.

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Maurizio Sarri is never going to build his squad and his tactics around the players he has. But if he can at least adjust what he does to make his favourite player look better, the Blues will be better for it.