By Christian Radnedge
LONDON (Reuters) – When Maurizio Sarri made a flying start at Chelsea, few dared to question his choice to shunt N’Golo Kante further forward and trust his former Napoli player Jorginho as the side’s deep-lying midfielder.
Yet defeats over the past two weeks by Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers heading into Saturday’s home clash against a free-scoring and undefeated Manchester City side have brought out the revisionists.
There is no doubting the talents of midfield dynamo Kante, who was an integral cog in Leicester City’s title success in 2015-16, and then moved to Chelsea to help them win the Premier League the season after.
He also anchored France to the World Cup in Russia earlier this year. Yet the 27-year-old has surprisingly been the target of recent criticism from Sarri for not adapting to the more advanced role in which the Italian prefers him.
Sarri explained that he preferred “a more technical player” in the deep midfield position, hence playing Jorginho there.
“Kante, in the last match, wanted to solve the match after the first 15 minutes, but in the wrong way. He lost the position, he attacked too much,” Sarri said after the Spurs defeat.
Many have questioned why Kante does not play alongside Jorginho, to get the best out of both players. That, however, would fundamentally alter the full effectiveness of the Italian’s preferred style of play, dubbed ‘Sarriball’.
The Italian likes quick, one-touch passing to get the ball up the field through a precise movement of players and accurate passing channels in a traditional 4-3-3 formation.
This has left the club fourth in the table on 31 points after 15 games, but leading the division for passes with 10,658.
Kante’s strengths lie more in his ability to break up play and then carry the ball forward, rather than his distribution. This is part of the reason Chelsea became such an effective counter-attacking force under previous coach Antonio Conte.
Even in Conte’s final season where Chelsea disappointed in the league and finished fifth, Kante still had a tackle success rate of 68 percent and made on average 63.24 passes per match.
This season those numbers are down to 52 percent and 57.13, respectively.
Yet Jorginho’s passing ability means the wing backs can overlap effectively, the attackers like Willian and Eden Hazard can move into the centre and all at once Chelsea can have seven players in a forward position.
As has been seen, however, this has left Chelsea vulnerable to be overrun with the defence exposed.
“You need to change the mentality in 25 minds to change the way you play football. And you cannot do that in one day. It is very difficult… it is a long way to go,” Sarri said on Friday.
Next up for Sarri is the visit of the league’s great entertainers City, who have been blowing teams away for fun domestically and can still play with swagger, even without the likes of injured Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero on the pitch.
Sarri’s honeymoon period looks to be over. Yet he now faces the conundrum of whether to stick to his philosophy in the belief that its implementation will take more than just a few months, or acquiesce in the short term and put Kante back in his slot.
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Editing by Toby Davis)