Record-breaking Jorginho the beating heart of Chelsea’s mangled midfield

Barney Ronay at the London Stadium on 23 September 2018

With three minutes to go here, Jorginho played a nudged sideways pass across the centre circle. Oddly there was no spontaneous ovation, Jorginho did not punch the air or collapse tearfully to his knees or do a dance from Fortnite. It was odd because in that moment Jorginho had broken the Premier League record for passes completed in a game, edging out Ilkay Gündogan’s mark of 165, set this year.

A few minutes earlier a lofted sideways pass to Willian meant Jorginho surged past Cesc Fàbregas’s 144-pass Chelsea record, set against West Brom in November 2014. By the end he was on a sensational 180 passes, not just beating the record but obliterating it, a GOAT-level performance of wiffling the ball about in midfield that may, for all we know, never be surpassed. At least not – it is to be hoped – while this reporter is present.

And all this was in a stadium redolent with records, venue for London 2012’s super Saturday, an arena that will be for ever marked by the names Farah, Rutherford, Ennis – and now Jorginho.

By the time the final whistle had interrupted his inexhaustible store of dinks and flicks and lofts Jorginho’s feat had been marred by the fact that Chelsea failed to score against West Ham, let alone win the game.

Worse, Chelsea had failed to do these things while giving a performance marked by something stuck and lateral, lacking a little urgency in their movement of the ball, with a large portion of the 90 minutes spent passing the ball short distances to no real end.

In many ways this match was a tale of three defensive midfielders. Maurizio Sarri has always said there will be bumps in the road as he attempts to impose his favoured style. Five victories before this 0-0 draw had been marked by some glimpses of Sarriball, the promised fast transitions and blitz attack. But this was instead Jorginhoball, with the feeling by the end of having spent an entire game watching somebody knitting a jumper, incubating an egg, whittling a stick.

Which is fine when you win. When you don’t it is hard not to question the balance of the Chelsea midfield. While Jorginho racked up the numbers in the centre circle N’Golo Kanté, defensive midfielder No 2, spent this game performing an awkward impression of a box-to-box dasher, at times a full-on right-winger.

Kanté is a World Cup-winning central pivot. His superpower is the interception. He is a one-man Bletchley Park, able to decode an opponent’s intentions three moves ahead of time. But on Sunday Kanté looked out of his comfort zone. He scuttled about and wandered offside. Towards the end Ross Barkley teed him up for a shot on goal to win the game. Kanté walloped the ball over the bar with all the finesse of a man playing in a pair of fishing waders.

This is not a surprise. As No 8s go, Kanté is an extremely good No 4. When Chelsea are asked to break down a cussed defence this is simply a waste of his best qualities. It is a problem Sarri will have to solve at some stage if his passing metronome Jorginho is to play in every game. At Napoli he had Marek Hamsik to play box-to-box, to create and score. Sunday’s midfield three of Jorginho, Kanté and Mateo Kovacic have averaged one league goal each a season for the past three years.

All of which puts more pressure on the attacking half of this team. Eden Hazard has been in thrilling form and he had some fine early moments on the ball here, sniping and jinking and showing that beautiful spring from a standing start. The balance of defensive duties has always been the issue with Hazard’s role at Chelsea. Sarri seems to have found an answer to that: just don’t give him any.

But Hazard will have days like these now and then. Increasingly, his influence was damped by a fine performance for West Ham from Declan Rice, defensive midfielder No 3, who spent seven years at Chelsea’s academy before being released aged 14. Watching him here, staying close to Hazard, passing well, remaining calm in possession, one wondered if he was ever tempted to look across at his opponents and wonder what might have been. Just think, Declan. You could have been on loan in Belgium by now.

Sarri was happy enough at the end with a point. Jorginho can luxuriate in his record, although it is wrong to blame him alone for that midfield stodge. This is an evolving Chelsea team. What seems certain is that Sarri will want more urgency in the passing from central areas – and that his use of Kanté looked, on this occasion, like a waste of energy in every sense.

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