Mohamed Salah showed Arsenal what most people around Chelsea already knew: nothing good happens when David Luiz is your last line of defence. If only Luiz had cared to fight for his place at Chelsea, he could fill the Blues’ need for a second-to-last line of defence.
N’Golo Kante is so vital to Chelsea that his absence from one game against a newly-promoted team is enough to have us wishing David Luiz hadn’t left for Arsenal.
Without Kante to cover Jorginho, Chelsea’s centrebacks were once again woefully exposed in transition to defence and while defending deep. Without Kante dropping alongside Jorginho in the transition to offence to create a passing option or leave space for someone else to receive the ball, Jorginho reverted to his two worst tendencies on the ball: a Sarriball-esque no-look one-touch pass to a player who is no longer in his Sarriball-defined position, for obvious reasons; or standing over the ball facing backwards or sideways, paralyzed with indecision over whether, where and how to dribble or pass the ball out from his self-induced precarious position, usually resulting in a back-pass.
It’s like Claudio Ranieri said: When you have N’Golo Kante, it’s like you are playing with an extra player. For Chelsea, that extra player brings the squad back up to 11: one Kante plays the Kante role, and one Kante plays the Jorginho role.
Mateo Kovacic played one of his best games in a Chelsea shirt, interdicting Norwich’s counter-attacks high up the pitch, doing more to protect the Blues’ back-line from Teemu Pukki than their nominal midfield screen.
Kovacic was also Chelsea’s best option to bring the ball out from the back, whether at his feet or through linking the defence to the attacking midfielders. In the second half he had an Eden Hazard-style dribble to go with a Cesc Fabregas-style assist for Tammy Abraham. Not a stolen assist. An actual, official, registered assist.
Chelsea’s defence had their best cover when Kovacic dropped into the deep role and Jorginho pushed up on the right. As it stands, Kovacic is the best option to fill in for N’Golo Kante in the defensive midfield role. However, Kovacic can only cover the one role. He cannot do the combined babysitting like Kante can do.
If Chelsea are to play without N’Golo Kante, either through injury or rotation to prevent future injuries, they cannot rely on Jorginho nor can they expect Kovacic or even Tiemoue Bakayoko to cover Jorginho. Kovacic and Bakayoko would work well together and would each work well with Kante. But unlike Kante, they are only one man each. They cannot do someone else’s job as well as their own.
Jorginho needs Kante more than Chelsea need Jorginho.
Ironically, the one player who could cover and almost complement Jorginho is the one who held the door open for another Liverpool rampage at Anfield on Saturday: David Luiz.
Many of my colleagues and I have long said Luiz’s best position is his original one at Chelsea: deep-lying midfield playmaker. This position lets him to defend without any strict positional responsibilities to defend. He can pick out long ball passes, dribble aggressively when space opens up in front of him and stay up in attack for prolonged periods as long as he returns to cover the defence more often than not.
Luiz has the passing and dribbling range that Jorginho does not, along with the defensive understanding and technical ability that Jorginho also does not possess. He could let Jorginho play slightly further up the pitch, as the deepest midfielder of Chelsea’s forward block. From there he could do whatever it is he’s supposed to do with short passes, cycling the ball and occasionally lofting one into the box, while Luiz stays deeper to bottle up the play and send long ball options over the top or wide to the wingers or overlapping full-backs.
Luiz also has the height missing from all of Chelsea’s squad that they need to cover set pieces. As a centre-back, Luiz’s inattentiveness squanders whatever advantage his height provides in defending set pieces. But as a defensive midfielder working alongside the two actual centre-backs, Luiz bolsters the aerial defensive cover.
As we now know, Luiz was not willing to fight for his place as a centreback. Had he stayed at Chelsea, though, he could already be higher in the defensive midfield depth chart than the centreback rotation. For whatever reason Frank Lampard has yet to name Tiemoue Bakayoko to a squad, even though the midfield’s performances with and without N’Golo Kante seems in need of precisely what Bakayoko could provide.
David Luiz could be starting every game in Kante’s absence as he fits the bill for everything Jorginho can not do. He could even be starting games alongside N’Golo Kante in midfield for much the same reason. Those two could productively co-exist, especially since Lampard is using Kante to win the ball further up the pitch. He might have sat the bench for only one game before finding himself back in the starting XI.
All he would have had to do is outwork Jorginho. An easy task, but probably not one he would have been willing to do either.
Chelsea’s needs changed within a few weeks of Luiz leaving, in a way that may have opened the door for Luiz to return to the team. Rather than follow in the footsteps of someone like Gary Cahill, who always adapted and fought his way back in, Luiz took the easy way out. His performance against Liverpool showed he has not changed at all.
If only, if only, if only…
If only Luiz had thrown his tantrum before Chelsea loaned Ethan Ampadu.