Surprise! Chelsea is just fine without Jorginho

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Jorginho of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Southampton FC at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Jorginho of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Southampton FC at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images) /

Jorginho has been absent from Chelsea’s squad ever since the restart due to his links elsewhere, but the Blues have been just fine.

Despite having little to gain and everything to lose, Chelsea has taken Project Restart by the horns. Two matches in, having taken six points from six, the Blues are looking up towards Leicester City in third place rather than peeking over their shoulder at the pack of teams hovering around fifth.

Despite their identical score lines, the two victories could hardly have been more dissimilar. Against Aston Villa, it was a case of Chelsea beating its collective head against a wall for an hour before finally punching through and overpowering a defiant, but ultimately fragile, relegation contender. While it wasn’t particularly pretty, Chelsea showed a degree of mental fortitude that was absent in many similar fixtures earlier this season.

Manchester City offered an entirely different challenge. Somehow, Chelsea was simultaneously under siege at the back and profligate in front of goal. It was the kind of match that leaves your palms sweaty for the entire ninety minutes.

City dominated possession and set up camp in Chelsea’s half of the pitch, but it was Ederson who proved to be the busier of the two goalkeepers. Every time Chelsea got ahold of the ball, the Blues went straight up the field and, more often than not, produced a chance that at least gave City’s keeper something to think about. It’s unfortunate that none of those flowing team moves directly led to Chelsea’s goals, but it was a glimpse into the type of football Frank Lampard is pushing for.

It’s worth noting that the beautiful football on display against City, as well as the hard-nosed variety that wore down Villa, came with a distinct lack of involvement from a certain much-maligned metronomic midfielder.

Six points, zero Jorginhos.

His current prison is partly of his own making. Similar to how N’Golo Kante hoovers up balls in midfield, Jorginho spent the season hoovering up yellow cards. The season was suspended right after Jorginho picked up his tenth yellow card in the Premier League, which earned him a two-match suspension, ruling him out for the match against Everton on March 8. Over 100 days later, he finally served the second half of that ban against Aston Villa.

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With an otherwise full complement of midfield options at his disposal, Lampard selected a trio of Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Mason Mount for Chelsea’s long-awaited return to action. That’s an extremely athletic, technically-skilled and hard-working midfield, albeit one that won’t win many headers. All three have unique strengths to their games, but each can at least perform a reasonable impression of the other two. Mount leans towards being more of an attacking player, while Kante is obviously more defensive, with Kovacic falling smack dab between the two. That compatibility and fluidity allows Lampard to try different tactics and game plans simply by reconfiguring those three players.

Against Villa, the standout performer was Kante, who was playing in the traditional holding role for what felt like the first time in eons. That spot has almost exclusively belonged to Jorginho ever since he and Maurizio Sarri arrived at Chelsea to usher in an era of footballing nirvana and salvation (results may vary). After Sarri ditched his muse in favor of the promise of guaranteed silverware at Juventus, Lampard tried to build his version of Chelsea with Jorginho as the midfield linchpin. Hello, Square Peg? I’d like you to meet Round Hole.

The Frank Lampard Style of Football (patent pending) is still a bit ill-defined, but it’s clear that athleticism and flexibility are two of the main pillars. If that wasn’t obvious over the course of the season, just look at the types of players Chelsea will be adding this summer. Through no fault of his own, Jorginho’s game is just about the perfect antithesis of Lampard’s philosophy. With the way all nine of his teammates work in concert around him, Jorginho functions a bit like a maypole, albeit one that loves a late, lazy tackle to pick up an unnecessary booking. To his credit, he’s done his best to try and adapt to non-Sarri football, but, in the same way that a leopard can’t change its spots, a Jorginho can’t change his sideways passing and static positioning.

Jorginho’s omnipresence in Chelsea’s midfield for most of the season was hardly a result of the meritocracy Lampard has tried to instill. A transfer ban, injuries and the remnants of last season’s status quo collectively led Lampard to pencil him in time and time again. The results were somewhat of a paradox: Jorginho would provide the same thing almost every match, yet his effectiveness swung wildly from exceptional to abhorrent and back again. For every pinpoint through-ball or awkwardly perfect penalty kick, there were dozens of passes between him and the centerbacks, plenty of shouting at teammates and a cascade of cheap fouls.

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Ironically, it was his penchant for yellow cards that quite possibly caused Jorginho to sign his own pink slip. The 4–0 victory against Everton in his absence was by some distance Chelsea’s most impressive performance of the season thus far. Arguably the biggest takeaway from the match was the performance of the newly-anointed Scottish Iniesta, Billy Gilmour. With Jorginho suspended and Kante injured, the teenage sensation slotted right in between Barkley and Mount in Chelsea’s midfield three. He proceeded to pull the puppet strings for ninety glorious minutes. He did everything one would expect from Jorginho, sans yellow card, while adding in some Kante-esque hustle and bustle to keep Chelsea in top gear.

In the following three-plus months without any actual football to speak of, Chelsea’s midfield continued to be a topic of interest, as Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek worked their way back to full fitness. By the time the season finally resumed, Jorginho was firmly Chelsea’s seventh-most intriguing midfield option—eighth if you’re really into Tino Anjorin. Even Barkley was a more exciting proposition.

After serving the second game of his suspension against Villa, Jorginho was finally available, just in time for Chelsea to take on Manchester City. Surely, Lampard would look for a player who could control the tempo of a match and orchestrate play from deep in his own half, right? Nope. Jorginho rode the pine, not even making a substitute appearance as Chelsea held on for dear life against a 10-man City squad. To add insult to, well, insult, Billy Gilmour came off the bench in stoppage time to offer some much-needed fresh legs and managed to squeeze in a brilliant lofted pass upfield in his short cameo.

It’s hard to imagine that Lampard would have made that specific substitution as an act of hostility towards Jorginho. After all, he’s no Jose Mourinho. But still, there was an undeniable waft of symbolism. It’s too soon to expect Gilmour to be a regular starter, but his potential is worth investing in, even though it will come at the expense of other players’ (mainly Jorginho’s) minutes.

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It would have been a fairly weighty decision by Lampard to simply toss Jorginho aside purely on the basis of meritocracy back before the world got weird. Jorginho’s tumble down the depth chart was born from his own suspension, the suspension of the season and the good form and health of several better options. It says a lot about his talent and professionalism that it took such a confluence of events to finally dethrone him, but there’s no denying that he now looks thoroughly and irrevocably dethroned. Frankly, Chelsea looks better off for it.