Injured Nemanja Matic, who will not return to Stamford Bridge in Manchester United colours at the weekend, would not have fit into new Chelsea manager's plans
Chelsea's Jorginho represents shift in philosophy Maurizio Sarri has brought to Stamford Bridge
Perhaps Nemanja Matic was 12 months ahead of his time. The Serb’s move to Manchester United last summer was a cause of some irritation to Antonio Conte.
“A great loss for us,” the Chelsea manager said at the time, suggesting the Serb was sold against his wishes.
If a robust, experienced defensive midfielder feels both a personification of Jose Mourinho’s ethos and the manager’s closest ally in a dressing room that scarcely seems packed with believers, the possibility he may miss Saturday’s reunion with a back injury feels another blow for the beleaguered Portuguese.
But it looks rather different from a Chelsea perspective.
Matic would have been integral for Conte last year. He could have been superfluous for Maurizio Sarri this season. His replacement Tiemoue Bakayoko is gone, loaned out to AC Milan, and largely forgotten.
Chelsea have less need for a hulking bulwark in front of their defence. A team with a tradition of winning the league in a manager’s debut season have been revived, but also reinvented. “The biggest change I ever saw in such a short space of time. Wow,” Jurgen Klopp said last month.
Chelsea were a couple of minutes from beating the German’s Liverpool then.
If Eden Hazard, another remnant of Mourinho’s reign and one who said this week that he would happily play for the Portuguese again, is the face of a side relishing a more attacking remit, the brain is a successor of Matic’s.
Jorginho feels the anti-Matic. He is 14 centimetres shorter and 18 kilograms lighter.
It may be a simplification to brand them a constructive and destructive midfielder respectively – the Serb’s passing skills helped him register seven assists in his last season at Stamford Bridge – but only one dictates play. Matic is no regista, no modern-day equivalent of Andrea Pirlo.
Jorginho is Chelsea’s fulcrum, their classy constant. But as Sarri said when he unveiled his first signing: “Jorginho is not a physical player, he is a technical player.”
Tellingly, given the criticisms that Matic can be too slow to pass forwards, Sarri said of Jorginho: “The most important quality is that he is very quick in the mind. So he has the ability to move the ball very quickly.”
He moves it very often. Jorginho set a Premier League record by attempting 180 passes against West Ham United.
It is not merely that he has had played more passes than anyone else in the division; he is already 111 clear of Aymeric Laporte in second and 224 ahead of Antonio Rudiger in third. Four of the top seven are Chelsea players whereas last year Cesar Azpilicueta was their lone representative in the 12 most prolific passers.
Chelsea played the fifth most passes last season, ahead of only Mourinho’s United among the top six. Now they have had even more of the ball than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
It shows the scale of the makeover. Sarri previewed the campaign by saying: “I expect in the first part of the season some problems.”
Few have materialised. Perhaps he was simply downplaying expectations but it is understandable if he is surprised.
A 3-4-2-1 formation has been jettisoned for Sarri’s 4-3-3, a cautious counter-attacking side reimagined as a possession team.
Matic’s old sidekick N’Golo Kante forged a reputation as the premier defensive midfielder in the world, but now spends more time in the final third. He is averaging more shots and fewer tackles and interceptions than before.
“I try to find the striker, to be more offensive, to cause problems for the opponents,” Kante said in August. “I need to adapt in this role.”
But his industrial reserves of energy have equipped him for box-to-box duties.
And the other position Matic perhaps could have filled, on the left of a midfield trio, was Marek Hamsik’s in Sarri’s Napoli and the Serb is scarcely a duplicate of the goalscoring, playmaking Slovakian. Perhaps Mateo Kovacic, a slight passer, and Ross Barkley are not either.
But the rejuvenated Merseysider, a player Conte either ignored or criticised, showed his quality as he served as one of the architects of England’s victory over Spain.
Each has the mobility of a Sarri-esque No 8 in a way Matic does not. Mourinho’s fondness for supersized midfields, for picking more than one defensive midfielder, distinguish him as Sarri feels more in touch with the times.
For all the animosity between them, Conte was more of a tactical soulmate. They both wanted Matic. Sarri perhaps would not have done.
It is a reason why he represents a break from Chelsea’s past as the Italian orchestrates a revolution in the midfield.