How Chelsea will manage the loss of Eden Hazard was supposed to be the defining question of the season. It may still be, but how they handle any future absences of N’Golo Kante will be far more important at the level of individual games.
Every game without N’Golo Kante is a reminder that he is not “just” anything for Chelsea, as my colleague Kevin put it recently. His ability provide midfield coverage for the centrebacks is the most obvious attribute missing this season. But Jorginho’s performance against Norwich City put in sharp relief all the other midfield duties Kante fulfills, either on his own or by making Jorginho look good enough to stay in the XI.
N’Golo Kante may not be technical enough to be a r*****a, but his intelligence and decision-making make him a far superior option to Jorginho for transitioning Chelsea from defence to offence, and for ushering the play out of Chelsea’s half. Now that Chelsea have a manager whose system prizes intelligence and decision-making over rote execution, Jorginho shorn of Kante’s protection is a void in the Blues’ midfield.
Jorginho is stuck in two minds in his first season without Maurizio Sarri. Much like how we used to ask “Which David (Luiz) will show up today?”, for any given moment in a game we have to wonder which Jorginho will join the play: Sarri’s or Lampard’s.
The Sarri version of Jorginho is still making one-touch, no-look, no-thought passes to where players are “supposed” to be. He points and shouts to get his teammates to where they are “supposed” to be, per the Sarriball textbook.
The Lampard version pushes the limit of our praise for new and creative mistakes. Presented with a range of options, he lingers on the ball until the best of those options are closed down, leaving him to go with the most comfortable of the remainder, usually a back-pass. It’s not that he makes bad decisions – he makes no decisions, or at least waits until none are left.
In the 11′ against Norwich, for example, we saw Jorginho move towards the Lampard camp. Cesar Azpilicueta dashed to the edge of the final third to join the press. Jorginho closed down the Norwich ball carrier, whose pass towards his teammate on the touchline was intercepted by Azpilicueta. Azpilicueta one-timed the ball to Jorginho, who took it on the turn and confronted his decisions.
He had three passing options in the short- to medium range, and two more long range. He also had space to dribble towards the centre of the pitch. He opted for a diagonal pass towards the top of the box, which was cut out by the right leg of the defender standing about five feet in front of him. Poor decision, worse execution.
As the game went on, Jorginho reverted more and more to what he knows best: Sarriball. In the 42-43′ he had an extended sequence of calling for the ball in useless positions, practically inviting his teammates to make the sort of mistakes he would make.
Early the in the 42′ Jorginho was supporting Ross Barkley near the final third. Barkley had two Norwich City players right in front of him, and Jorginho was behind him with a Canary behind him, in turn. This mean Barkley and Jorginho were within a triangle of Norwich City players, overloaded 3v2.
Jorginho called for the ball without moving away from this triangle. If Barkley had passed the ball to him, the player marking Jorginho from behind could have easily pinched in, tackled the ball and turned upfield for a counter-attack. At the very least, Jorginho could have dragged either the deep marker or one of Barkley’s markers away from Barkley, reducing the overload to 1v1.
Barely a minute later, Jorginho was 20 yards inside Norwich’s half. He was facing the Norwich goal, and two Canaries were behind him, between him and the centrebacks. Right there, we have a problem. Had Norwich recovered possession and dispatched a long-ball, Norwich would have – at best – a 2v2 against Chelsea’s centrebacks.
Shortly thereafter the play did come into Chelsea’s zone, and Emerson recovered the ball on the left. He passed it to Jorginho, who sent it back to Kurt Zouma.
From there, Teemu Pukki pressed the Blues’ centrebacks. Norwich man-marked Jorginho as he ran from the left side of the pitch to the centre. By this point, Norwich had their press in full effect. Andreas Christensen passed to Cesar Azpilicueta who was being closed down hard. Pukki still had Christensen covered. One Norwich player stayed to the left to cover a switch to Zouma or Emerson. Mateo Kovacic sprinted back, but his marker was on his shoulder.
Through it all, Jorginho ran in a straight line before turning diagonally upfield. He was Azpilicueta’s only option, but not a very good one as he did not move into open space. His run intersected the path of Kovacic’s, which brought three Canaries – Azpilicueta’s marker, Kovacic’s marker and his own – between the ball and him. Rather than creating an open passing lane and putting himself in space, he invited the opposition into the passing lane.
Jorginho’s movements and passes in these plays exemplify what he did throughout the game. He looked to do what used to work under Sarriball. But those spaces and those passing lanes weren’t there any more because the Blues were not in those precisely defined areas.
Still, his most obnoxious Sarriball moment came in the 54′. Jorginho fell into the centre of the backline, calling for the ball from Emerson. Emerson passed to Zouma, who squared the ball to Jorginho, still in the deep central position. Jorginho dribbled, pointed to his teammates where he wanted them to go, and then dribbled a bit more. He then came to a full stop over the ball at the edge of the midfield circle, both arms extended in exasperation as his teammates were not following his “orders.” He then passed the ball with visible disgust horizontally to Zouma on his left, and proceeded to berate one of his teammates ahead on the right.
That’s not leadership, that’s petulance. Not only that, it’s a complete lack of awareness of the situation he is in. He was useful as Maurizio Sarri’s on-field lieutenant because he knew all the plays and circuits so well. He could tell the other players what to do because he knew what the manager wanted.
Frank Lampard is not that kind of manager, which means he does not need someone like Jorginho to boss around the other players with now-useless instructions. Jorginho may see a good option, but there is no longer the “correct” choice, which means he has no place to get off excoriating his teammates for doing something different.
Of course, he first has to see that good option. The 54′ strop was only one example of him yelling at his teammates while leading them astray. In the 28′, he had both hands up calling for the ball from Emerson. This would have required Emerson to pass between two defenders from 10 yards away instead of finding the open man up the touchline.
This is the state of Chelsea’s midfield without N’Golo Kante. Mateo Kovacic can do a lot, and he did against Norwich. He covered the entire pitch in every state of the game. But he can only cover so much ground and responsibility beyond his own. That’s not a knock on the Croatian, just another nod to the marvel that is N’Golo Kante.
Chelsea already need Kante to cover the backline, force turnovers, join the press and pull the play out from the defensive third. They also need him – last year and this year – to drop deep in support of Jorginho defensively and in transition.
Many of Jorginho’s struggles against Norwich City were a direct result of him not having Kante to create space or offer himself as an easy outlet, at which point Kante would do all those things Jorginho was not doing himself. That, of course, forces the question: If Chelsea need Kante to do so much for Jorginho, why do they really need Jorginho?
I still think there could be a place for Jorginho in this team, provided he puts in the work David Luiz was not willing to do. Until that work is realized, though, Jorginho cannot play unaccompanied by N’Golo Kante. His anachronistic Sarri-isms are vulnerabilities this team do not need right now.
Chelsea need new plans for those times N’Golo Kante is not in the lineup. They can start Tiemoue Bakayoko or, upon Reece James’ return, Cesar Azpilicueta in defensive midfield. They could also switch to a three-man defence, which may in fact work with Kovacic and Jorginho in the midfield as it will alleviate Jorginho’s responsibility to cover the back-line.
Chelsea resisted building a team around Eden Hazard. N’Golo Kante is so good you don’t need to a build a team around him: he single-handedly is the team that protects the other players.
Chelsea just need to build a midfield around his occasional absences.