Roman Abramovich’s 1000th game as Chelsea owner may have revived memories of his first, 17 years ago. It was a debut for a host of new signings. Four days later, one of them, Juan Sebastian Veron, scored the first league goal of Russian’s reign. He was not to last long in the side, losing a contest with the ruthless, relentless Frank Lampard.
Sixteen years later, another elegant, languid passer who had made his name in Serie A seemed likely to become another victim of Lampard’s. Jorginho is a very different type of midfielder to his manager but Maurizio Sarri’s protégé became Lampard’s vice-captain when the Englishman returned to Stamford Bridge. The personification of 'Sarriball' has shown greater staying power than many expected.
And yet it feels as though an era of sorts is now ending. Jorginho may have been an ever-present in this season’s Champions League but he has been a substitute in Chelsea’s last four league games. He lost his status as the penalty taker and then his place. It has been said before but this time it may be true: his future seems to lie outside the strongest side.
Sarri’s inflexibility meant N’Golo Kante had to compromise to accommodate Kante. Now the odd couple of Chelsea’s midfield have been separated: the Italy international has been benched while the Frenchman has taken his spot in front of the back four. Kante has been in fine form. He seems to relish a return to his old duties as the all-action ball-winner at the heart of the team; stripped of the demands to get into the final third, he can concentrate on what he is famously good at.
The warning signs were there earlier. Jorginho limped into lockdown with domestic and European suspensions, the latter for a particular needless booking for dissent against Bayern Munich. Billy Gilmour emerged as a younger deep-lying playmaker; the Scot was the star of Chelsea’s brief March. Kante started the summer as the hyperactive quarterback. Jorginho returned from internal exile to add control against Crystal Palace, with 26 passes in an 11-minute July cameo, and then regained his place in the team.
But the shift back in thinking in the last month feels decisive. Jorginho and Kante have felt incompatible, albeit with the oddity that they have rarely operated as a duo in a 4-2-3-1 system that might have suited their contrasting attributes. Yet if Kante has killed off Jorginho, so has Mason Mount. The Englishman is no Kante copycat, but he possesses the pressing and ball-winning skills to do the job the World Cup winner was co-opted into, of regaining possession further up the field. Mateo Kovacic, more of a rounded footballer than Jorginho, was Chelsea’s player of the year last year, but Kai Havertz is presumably earmarked as the other No. 8 in the long term; if the role of the regista is abolished, Chelsea could compensate with a combination of Mount and Havertz’s passing from further forward plus the added dimension Reece James and Ben Chilwell offer on the flanks as a more progressive full-back partnership.
Which may only leave one problem: Jorginho. He could represent a Plan B but, still more so than the Europa League trophy, he feels Sarri’s legacy, and not a particularly positive one. He lacks Kante’s formidable skills off the ball; he is a deep-lying midfielder, not a defensive one. He feels the sort of player a side has to be built around and there is only one manager who is desperate to do that. Sarri did want him at Juventus, before Juventus decided they did not want Sarri any more. Mikel Arteta’s surprising interest presents an intriguing alternative history – would Jorginho have really improved Arsenal? – but he did not top a shortlist that featured Thomas Partey and Houssem Aouar. Unless Sarri re-emerges at a club with a substantial budget, however, Chelsea have a £50 million midfielder who will be hard to shift and who, as he turns 29 this month, has a diminishing value. Sarri is gone, but his disciple may remain; largely on the bench.
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