After a summer of uncertainty and disorganisation, Chelsea left their transfer business late.
After just two weeks of the Maurizio Sarri reign, Chelsea’s performance against City showed that the players know they’re being asked to keep hold of the ball under the new manager, but not anything more specific than that. The personnel is also very similar to what Antonio Conte had last season: only a few minor tweaks, but with a lot of uncertainty and upheaval thrown in.
Jorginho, Chelsea’s first signing of the summer, had a quiet opening game in a blue shirt in the Community Shield on Sunday. The worry is that he alone won’t be enough for Maurizio Sarri to instill an entirely new style of play into the Stamford Bridge side this season.
The Italian playmaker’s passing accuracy was in the 90% range, so from a numbers perspective he had a great game. The trouble comes in the fact that some of the passes he did misplace came in dangerous areas: an occupational hazard for a deep-lying playmaker of course – especially in the first game for a new club, at Wembley, against one of the best pressing midfielders in the country – but there should still be some concern about that.
That shouldn’t be a slight against Jorginho alone, though. Football is a team game and those around him will have to provide more options. N’Golo Kante will come into the team and bring an energy that Cesc Fabregas certainly can’t contribute. Then there’s Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley who will provide Sarri with options with regards to who takes the third midfield spot.
Then there’s deadline day loan signing Mateo Kovacic.
He and record signing Kepa Arrizabalaga will bring reinforcements to the Bridge and take Sarri’s signings (not including Rob Green) to three this summer. It’s clear what Kepa will bring: he’ll replace Thibaut Courtois. What’s less clear is what Kovacic brings to the side.
The Croatian is a player who has never really found his niche. He has been one of Europe’s most feted young players for quite a while now, but at the age of 24 he still has lots to prove. In that respect, there’s a comparison to be made with another of Chelsea’s midfield cohort, Ross Barkley.
The former Everton man is another player creeping into ‘not a kid anymore’ territory. And Barkley, too, suffers from the same problem as Kovacic in that it’s unclear exactly what sort of a player he is.
Both are fairly versatile midfielders. They can play in deep roles and drive their teams forward. They both like to dribble from midfield, but can both play further forward in the number 10 role. And yet, neither offer defensive protection in front of the back line, and neither are obvious creators like Willian or Eden Hazard, who are more natural number 10s.
To have one such versatile midfielder with something to prove could be an asset for a squad but to have two makes you wonder what Sarri has in mind. Barkley started at Wembley, and although that’s no guarantee of playing much this season given all the big names who are yet to return to Chelsea’s starting XI after the World Cup, it does suggest he’ll have a role this year.
With Kovacic also joining, what does that mean for Chelsea’s midfield? What does it mean for Barkley – a player who actually belongs to Chelsea and who they’ve paid real money for?
It’s a signing that could be exciting if the Croatian can fulfil the potential he so clearly has. But he’s been hampered by the fact that he has no obviously defined position. In a Chelsea side where the manager has just arrived and has not had nearly enough time to assess his squad before the start of the Premier League season, it would be a feat of management if this was the year Kovacic reached the heights he’s threatened to get to for the last few years.