A humbling Community Shield defeat to Manchester City in which Willy Caballero’s occasional heroics managed to spare a significantly more painful scoreline stopped dead in its tracks the optimistic momentum Maurizio Sarri’s reputation as a manager of fine football has brought to Stamford Bridge.
For all the positivity beforehand, it’s now clear this Chelsea team has a long way to go before it starts replicating the entertaining threat of Sarri’s former club Napoli, let alone consider themselves genuine competitors with last season’s Premier League champions.
But the 2-0 loss did answer some key questions facing Sarri, perhaps the most important being the complexion of Chelsea’s midfield this season. While N’Golo Kante is an obvious permanence on the team sheet as arguably the best playbreaking midfielder in the world, the acquisition of Jorginho has completely changed the dynamics of what was, for the most part at least, a two-man engine room under Antonio Conte.
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Chelsea still haven’t quite got to grips with the deep-lying quarterback style of their only major acquisition this summer; the defence didn’t spread out enough against City to create the space on the ball the Italy international needs, just as those playing in front of him failed to provide a recurring, consistent outlet to flick passes onto.
But amid a worryingly underwhelming performance from the west Londoners, Ross Barkley’s individual display stood out – partly because of the backdrop of depressing blue it was held up against and partly because he looked a far more natural supplier of what Jorginho needs to thrive in midfield than Cesc Fabregas on the other side.
In contrast to a largely static performance from Fabregas, Barkley jinked his way through City’s midfield with two dribbles, caused their defence problems with two created chances, won two tackles and two aerial duels, and showed his ability to link up with Jorginho by completing 88% of his passes. In fact, no player received more Barkley passes than Chelsea’s new signing, five from his total of 40.
“I like him, he is a technical player. I like him very much. He has to improve on the defensive phase I think, it is difficult in this moment to play with Jorginho, Cesc [Fabregas] and Ross altogether.”
Maurizio Sarri on Ross Barkley
It was by no means an exceptional performance, but its variety and dynamism shouldn’t be overlooked. While Fabregas remains an immensely talented technician, he should probably be playing where Jorginho is rather than just in front of him at this point in his career, because he’s no longer capable of the surging runs the eight-cap international needs others to make to create space at the base of the engine room.
Barkley, while not completely flawless on Sunday, can surge forward to make the opposition second-guess themselves before closing Jorginho down, and he can also take part in a more studied, methodical buildup in the way Sarri often asked of his exciting Napoli side.
With Jorginho and Kante certainties to start most of Chelsea’s game this season, Barkley’s already made himself a strong candidate to complete the three-man engine room – something Sarri directly alluded to after the full-time whistle. So, would you give the England international the nod for Chelsea’s opening Premier League clash? Let us know by voting below…