Sarri’s Chelsea are match for Liverpool but Kanté poses midfield puzzle

Press against press, 4-3-3 against 4-3-3, wide forwards who cut in against wide forwards who cut in, attacking full-back against attacking full-back:

Chelsea against Liverpool on Saturday, Maurizio Sarri against Jürgen Klopp, will be a meeting of two very similar conceptions of football.

Wednesday night’s Carabao Cup meeting, even with significantly altered line-ups, highlighted those similarities, and also the fact that the main difference lies in midfield. Chelsea may have won at Anfield, but it is in the centre that Liverpool perhaps have an edge.

The speed with which Chelsea have adapted to Sarri’s approach has been remarkable but one area that seems not quite yet to work is the role of N’Golo Kanté.

Jorginho was Napoli’s metronome last season, creating the play and setting the tempo. There were doubts about whether he would be able to function in a similar way amid the harum-scarum of a Premier League midfield but he already looks at home, and has broken the Premier League record for most passes in a game. Whether those passes are necessarily always purposeful is another issue.

More concerning, though, is what the Italian’s introduction as a regista in a 4-3-3 means for Kanté. The 27-year-old is a player of such prodigious stamina that he briefly made Danny Drinkwater look like some kind of English Pirlo by seeming simultaneously to operate both to his left and his right.

That capacity to perform two roles at once is rather less useful, though, when the positions he is occupying make him less an all-over fire blanket than some awkward blend of box-to-box midfielder and inside-right.

The result is that Kanté is averaging at least 50% more shots per game this season than in any previous Premier League campaign.

There’s a reason he has scored a single goal in each of his three previous seasons in England. It is not that he has lacked the opportunity to get into scoring positions, it is that, for all his very many gifts as a footballer, Kante is not particularly good at shooting.

Kanté’s tackles, meanwhile, are more than a third down on either of his previous seasons at Chelsea, while his interceptions have plummeted by a factor of 2.5. Such details can be misleading, particularly when there has been a change of coach and style of a side, but that does not alter the general sense that Kanté is being asked to fulfil a function that does not necessarily get the best out of him.

A solution could be for Kanté to drop deeper, more alongside Jorginho, operating as a bodyguard for him as he did for Drinkwater, but that would require a change of shape to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1.

That, though, doesn’t necessarily get the best out of Mateo Kovacic, who has himself scored only one league goal in the last three and a half years, would restrict Jorginho’s passing options and would require Sarri to revert to a shape he hasn’t used since he was at Sorrento in Lega Pro 1 in 2011-12.

Sarri’s problem, essentially, is that he doesn’t have anybody who can fulfil the role Marek Hamsik did for Napoli, offering goals and creativity from midfield.

Wednesday’s game went through three distinct phases. There was the first half of the first half, in which Liverpool’s press struggled to stifle Chelsea and Cesc Fàbregas, a player who is perhaps capable of playing that Hamsik role, had a significant influence.

There was the middle portion – the second and third quarters of the match – in which Liverpool got on top of Fàbregas, were able to dominate and had enough chances to have finished the tie. And then there was the end of the second half, when Eden Hazard, having come off the bench, began to exert his influence and Liverpool allowed themselves to be rattled by the decision to award the free-kick that led to the equaliser.

With the first-choice midfield – presumably Jordan Henderson and James Milner, who both played only part of Wednesday’s game, and Georginio Wijnaldum, who was rested altogether – Liverpool’s press should be more efficient. At least as significant a factor, though, is likely to be on the flanks, with the return of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson at full-back. Chelsea’s threat through the centre, after all, is minimal.

Of their 17 goals in all competitions this season, only three have been scored by players who play through the middle (and one of those was a penalty); similarly, only three assists have been registered by players operating in central areas.

Liverpool, it’s true, also threaten more from their wide forwards than through the middle, but the danger they pose through the centre is far greater: Daniel Sturridge and Roberto Firmino alone have scored six goals between them this season. When Sarri speaks of being a year behind Liverpool in terms of development, whatever questions may be asked about the timeframe, that surely is one of the prime issues he is talking about.

Stopping Hazard in the sort of form he is never going to be easy, but at least Liverpool can be fairly certain where the danger is coming from.

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