After Chelsea’s disastrous trip to Wembley there is need for introspection. However among the usual leg jerk criticisms, mostly warranted after a shocking display from Sarri’s men, there is one in particular that some Chelsea fans and the wider media seem to be confused about.
Kanté’s role in the Chelsea system this season has been under scrutiny, Chelsea have looked good in parts this season, and on the occasions that they fall short of expectations there have been questions raised about whether Marizio Sarri knows what he’s doing. It all starts with philosophy. No one system can be perfect, if there was one perfect above all all teams would play the same way. Hence the need for philosophy. A way of playing that you believe in, a consistent formula for finding success, every philosophy has its weaknesses and as a coach you strive to mitigate what you can and accept what you can’t. With this in mind lets take a look at Sarri’s Chelsea.
Chelsea’s general gameplay under Sarri is to retain not just possession but control of the game, and it is in this second aspect that a lot of people lose their understanding of ‘sarriball’. When Chelsea have possession and are building an attack they line up in a 433, with Jorginho at the base of midfield, With potentially up to 7 players in front of him in an established pattern of play, the player at the base of midfield is tasked with recycling the possession of the ball, switching the play from one route to goal to another, and most importantly and I cannot stress this enough, controlling the tempo of the game. Another thing that needs to be highlighted is Jorginho is NOT a defensive midfielder. He is not in the team to defend, whilst every player must play a part in defence it seems the criticism stems from the lack of understanding of his role. His role, not his position.
To be successful in any possession oriented system you must be able to control the game. When a manager does not have players capable of controlling the tempo of the game, they find a way to create a situation where no one has control and try and force the upper hand. This is where Liverpool excelled last year, they had a system and players that allowed them to take advantage of transitions in play, the most ‘chaotic’ phase of play. Or a manager can try and take control back from the opponent seen countless times through José Mourinho’s pragmatic structure. When executed correctly Mourinho’s most solid teams did not mind having 20% of the possession, because they were in control of the tempo of the match. The reason why you see Sarri so infuriated by a drop in tempo is because when you have the ball for long spells and don’t change or increase the tempo you don’t force the other team into any threatening situations, they can merely sit back and retain their shape. You may have the ball but in a way they are in control. This is where players such as Jorginho become useful. When Jorginho is playing Chelsea have someone capable of controlling the midfield area and conversely the team.
No team can attack at 100% all game, even if they did have the ball for 90 minutes it would be largely inefficient, instead when in possession of the ball you need to find a way of creating space, or using the little space provided. Any change in tempo is to further this end. For example let’s say Chelsea were trying to break down an average premier league defence. If the ball is circulated around the pitch at normal tempo for 20 minutes, notwithstanding any glaring mistakes, long range efforts or sheer brilliance, all the defending team have to do is shuffle across the pitch keeping their shape. For premier league footballers this shouldn’t be an issue.
However if you have a player that can control the tempo with his selection of passes and whose vision underlines his mindset. When said player receives the ball at the base of the midfield and is exchanging passes with the centre backs and deeper lying players, from a fans perspective it might look like he is just passing sideways for the sake of it, but what he’s actually doing is waiting for a picture to form. Players like Jorginho always keep their head up because they know that the attacking players in front of him should be constantly shuffling around looking for open spaces and looking to pull opposition players out of position. When he senses the time is right the deep lying midfielder will pick out a pass that will take advantage of this instability in the oppositions defensive structure (See Pedro’s goal against Arsenal). However in this you see the first weakness of the system. If the players in front of him do not have good enough movement it is difficult to make anything happen and then the player ends up getting pressed or having to go backwards.
Most people saw Jorginho being beaten for pace by Son and immediately thought Kanté would have won that. Invariably they are right, however both previous goals had come firstly from a poorly defended set piece, and Kanté was within 5 yards when Kane scored his second. In any case this is where as a football coach or fan you have to choose what you want from your team. Sarri has chosen to commit to an eye catching possession oriented system, one that when correctly executed is near unstoppable, the position at the base of midfield is crucial, and those insisting that Kanté and Jorginho should swap roles are failing to acknowledge that Sarri’s system chooses, rather than react to the threat that the opposition has, he would rather control the game with attack as his first thought, a consequence of this defensively works to stifle any threat the opposition may have by simply starving them of the ball. For this particular system to work there must be someone with a range of passing, not only in frequency or difficulty but intensity and forethought. This player must also have a fantastic first touch and be press resistant, whether that be by dribbling or one or two touch play. That way you don’t lose possession or risk aimless passing from the point in your team that is meant to be recycling and conserving possession for your team.
If fans are concerned that Kante is being wasted now in his role as one of the ancillary centre midfielders lets consider how much more his talents would be wasted in the deeper midfield role. Kanté is adept at passing and can circulate the ball reasonably well, but when faced with two banks of defensive cover and all the play in front of him, I question his ability to orchestrate and control the tempo of attacks. It’s simply not his game. Whilst in the defensive or transition phases of play he would be closer to the back 4, for a team that averages around 62.9% possession in the premier league he would be active in the role he is playing for a maximum of 38% percent of the time on average, not even adjusting for time the ball is not in his part of the pitch.
For those claiming Jorginho simply needs to be moved further forward, there is a reason an army general does not fight from the front of the army. The further back you are, the more of the picture you can see. Jorginho has all the information in front of him, he has more time and space to dictate play. Consider the intensity of passing needed to recycle the ball constantly on the edge of the box with only two or three players in front of you, it would be near impossible for Jorginho to carry out his role. In American football there is a reason the quarter back starts as one of the furthest back.
I argue that Kanté and Jorginho are completely fine in the roles they are playing and in fact they are not the problem. Many fans have pointed out that because Kanté is asked to operate higher up the pitch he is not in a position to help out the defence, they also point out that he cannot contribute anything to the attack and thus he is not performing well. These are all valid views but in actual fact when you analyse the way Chelsea play, and Kanté’s contribution to that, it gives way to different conclusions. In Italy you have to complete a degree to be a football manager, I doubt very much that Sarri came to the premier league and expected Kanté to start pumping out 15 goals and 10 assists a season.
Chelsea in established attack are high up the pitch with the defenders usually on the halfway line, Kanté usually takes position on the inside right channel or creating an overload on the right flank, he is there to facilitate attacking play, provide an extra body for the more creative players to circle the ball through, whilst the centre forward pins the defence he is also encouraged to make forward runs at the last man to stretch the defence and create space for others. His box to box nature means he is suited to this role. However the problem in Chelsea’s attack arises from the fact that of the 5 other players in established attack, far too many are facilitators and offer no invention or drive. Typically Willian, Morata, Kovacic/Barkley, Alonso, Azpilicueta and Hazard will make up a Chelsea attack across the width of the pitch. When you look at these 7 players it is astounding that the biggest consistent goal threat, (or threat full stop) if not Hazard is probably the left back, Marcos Alonso. It is confusing why out of all these players people attribute the reason Chelsea struggle to score to Kanté, as far as Sarri is concerned Kanté is doing his job.
Looking on to the defensive phase when the opposition win the ball back from Chelsea, the advantage of being so high up the pitch is that you have many players with which to instigate a press. Chelsea are a work in progress, but this inability to press efficiently and effectively is why the defence seems so exposed without Kanté. This is why you hear Sarri is reticent to criticise solely his defenders because whilst they havent covered themselves with glory, the system relies on a high press winning the ball back before it ever makes it that far. The lack of commitment and intensity to pressing by the forward and midfield line creates more problems for the defence. If Chelsea were able to employ an effective press high up the field Kanté would be instrumental in winning the ball back and would continue to receive plaudits for his defensive work, even so far forward. After the loss to Tottenham Sarri bemoaned the poor mentality of the squad, not only in this match but the preceding weeks ““I hope first of all for the players because I told them in the last week that we had big problems with our approach to matches and today was the same, but the level of the opponent was different and in 16 minutes it was 2-0.” Often you see him on the touchline screaming at his players to press and pass with more intensity.
In my eyes Chelsea’s issue lies not with Kanté or Jorginho, they both had poor games against Tottenham, but looking back at the last few games, the evidence is clear to see, Chelsea are suffering from two issues. Some personnel already in the squad have failed to make their mark on key positions, coupled with a poor mentality from the squad in terms of intensity, the Spurs result was one those with a keen eye had been dreading. With Man City on the horizon Chelsea must either drastically improve their quality and inventiveness of their attacking play on the ball or be much more aggressive without it, neither of these issues remedied by swapping Kanté and Jorginho.