After enjoying a record-breaking 12 game unbeaten start to life in the Premier League, Maurizio Sarri has suffered two defeats in his last three games and faces a daunting match-up against Manchester City this weekend. The first cracks in Sarriball are starting to show.
Sarris honeymoon period in west London is over after four months and while a dip in results in the short-term was inevitable given the unexpectedly excellent start Chelsea made to the season, longer-term issues are starting to manifest: the NGolo Kante quandary, chief among them.
Kante has worked exclusively alongside Italian managers during his three and a half years in England but while Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte made him the centrepiece of their title-winning teams, Sarri has shifted his position in order to accommodate his star pupil, Jorginho.
The idea was to build a team around the playmaking qualities of the Brazilian-born metronome and utilise Kantes Duracell Bunny stamina in a box-to-box role, but there have been undeniable teething problems with both players caught out in the defeat to Spurs and Kante taken off against Wolves.
Sarri has come in for criticism for shunting arguably the best defensive midfield player in world football out of his comfort zone and consequently leaving his back four exposed, but is his idealogy reflective of a wider shift in perception of what a defensive midfielder should bring to the table?
In my football, the playmaker is whoever had the ball. But if you have him, he cant do that. He doesnt have the ideas to do it, although of course he is great at winning the ball.
Arrigo Sacchis quote about Claude Makelele over a decade ago could equally be applicable to another Italian coach talking about a tough-tackling Frenchman now. Indeed, Sarri seems to have dusted down his compatriots version and given it a 2018 revamp judging by his recent comments about Kante.
Sarri criticised Kante for his technical limitations following the loss to Spurs at Wembley, saying: I think, as you know, I want to play a central midfielder as a very technical player, a Jorginho or [Cesc] Fabregas. I dont want Kante in this position.
Sarris stance seems more radical because it is Kante who has been sacrificed. Not only is Kante arguably the best at what he does in world football, hes also extremely popular. An affront to Kante, a man who loves riding bicycles, is too shy to lift the World Cup and actively avoids funneling his salary into an offshore tax haven, is an affront to everyone.
However, managers of the other top six clubs have also generally selected deep-lying playmakers at the base of their midfield this season, with Granit Xhaka operating nearer his own goal than Lucas Torreira at Arsenal, Harry Winks playing as a No.6 for Spurs and Jordan Henderson doing a disciplined holding job for Liverpool.
Manchester Citys Fernandinho is regarded as a more natural defensive midfielder and while he adds tenacity to the City midfield, he is far more technically adept than often given credit for.
Passes completed by midfielders per-90
Jorginho94.60Granit Xhaka79.10Fernandinho74.80David Silva68.50Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg67.70
With City regularly enjoying over 60% possession, Fernandinho is required to recycle the ball intelligently and resourcefully, while also holding his deep position to enable the full-backs space to maraud forwards. The Brazilian has completed on average 74.8 passes per game, which is only six more than David Silva but a whopping 30 more than Bernardo Silva, the two players most regularly deployed either side of him this season.
Alongside goalkeeper Ederson, Fernandinho is the one constant in Pep Guardiolas starting XI, with the Brazilian pair the only ever-present starters in Guardiolas squad. Given Fernandinho will turn 34 before the season is out, Citys search for his successor will intensify over the next two transfer windows and according to reports, they have two top targets in mind: Ajaxs Frenkie De Jong and Lyons Tanguy Ndombele.
Both players are precociously gifted 21-year-olds, delivering consistently dominant displays in their respective leagues as well as in the Champions League, yet neither are archetypal ball-winning midfielders. Each excel in transition phases thanks to their ability to dribble out of trouble and into space, albeit in different ways: De Jong is more of a glider, while Ndombele has a fearsome turn of pace, allied to an ability to twist and turn away from his markers, a la Tottenhams Mousa Dembele.
Quite incredibly given his role as Ajaxs deepest-lying midfield player, De Jong completed 54/58 dribbles in the Eredivisie last season, achieving the highest success rate (90.3%) in the division. It is why comparisons to Johan Cruyff, a world-class winger and centre forward, arent quite as daft as they first appear.
Ndombele was similarly impressive with the ball at his feet, succeeding with 80 successful dribbles in Ligue 1 last season – a total bettered by only eight players, all of whom were attacking wide players, including the likes of Neymar and Florian Thauvin.
There are further similarities in the way in which the pair manipulate the ball too, with both initiating attacking moves through playing probing passes up the pitch. De Jong created a goalscoring opportunity every 68 minutes for Ajax, while Ndombele created 45 chances from open play, which was the eight-highest total in Ligue 1 and only just behind Kylian Mbappe.
That both players are wanted by seemingly every major club in Europe at the moment, shows that possessing a midfield player who excels in transitions and can break an opposition press through their passes, is very much desirable, particularly in the helter-skelter, 200mph world of the Premier League.
Given the recent furore over Jorginho and Kantes positioning, it is somewhat revealing to hear De Jong talk so glowingly about the former as one of the players he most enjoys watching. In an interview with The Guardian, De Jong said: You have to do your defensive work but I like to see players who understand the game, players with a lot of vision. Jorginho is one of them.
That isnt to say that the days of a Kante type midfielder have been consigned to history. Indeed, Sarri had a player with similar characteristics at Napoli in the recently capped Brazilian international Allan, who excelled in the role that Kante is being used in now. Last season, Allan ranked joint-top with former Liverpool man Lucas Leiva – himself a former No.10 – for tackles won in Serie A with 107 in 38 games. Clearly Sarri is hoping that Kante can eventually enjoy the same success as a right-sided central midfielder as Allan did.
There is another good example closer to home in Arsenals Torreira. The diminutive Uruguayan was eased in slowly by Unai Emery following his summer exertions at the World Cup but is becoming an increasingly vital component of a new-look Arsenal. Martin Keown has even labelled him Arsenals best midfielder since Patrick Vieira over the past week.
During his two seasons with Sampdoria, Torreira won more tackles than any other player in Serie A (198) and made the fourth-highest number of interceptions (158), predominantly as the deepest-positioned midfielder in their standard 4-3-1-2 system. It was anticipated that he would take on a similar role at the Emirates, however, the fact that he ranks 38th in the Premier League for tackles won and 31st for interceptions despite playing in all of Arsenals league games this season, suggests he has a greater license to get forward.
Torreira has already bettered his assists tally in 15 Premier League games than 71 in Serie A with two for Arsenal compared to one for Sampdoria, while his goal against Spurs in the north London derby vindicated Emerys decision to let him off the leash. Most defensive players would have had a nosebleed had they found themselves in the opposition penalty area with ten minutes of a derby remaining, yet Torreira was composure personified, firing a low shot beyond Hugo Lloris to spark pandemonium inside the Emirates and end the contest.
In an age where both controlling possession and pressing high up the pitch are very much in vogue tactical trends, it makes sense to see clubs employing a playmaker deeper to retain possession and initiate attacking moves, with a naturally defensive player pushed on to win the ball in areas where the opposition can be hurt. Its an obvious point to make, but the higher up the pitch a team can win the ball, the quicker they can attack and the greater the likelihood their opponents defence is not sufficiently prepared to cope.
Ex-PSG midfielder turned youth coach Thiago Motta caused a stir recently when he spoke of revolutionising football with a rather out there 2-7-2 formation, yet in essence what he was saying was that standardised systems such as 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 arent really that in reality. Defenders are now responsible for attacking too while attackers are also expected to defend. The shape of a team, therefore is constantly evolving in-game.
Much has been made of Sarris decision to displace Kante but as his Premier League contemporaries have shown, there is method to the madness. While once defensive midfield players were expected to stay in their zone, win the ball and move it swiftly on, now they are builders of the attack.
The Chelsea fans who have lambasted Sarri over his Kante decision may not agree, but getting defensive midfielders to join the attack can only add to footballs entertainment factor.
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