Lots has been made of Maurizio Sarri and his philosophy since arriving at Stamford Bridge in the summer, but one thing that has perhaps stuck out most is the use of N’Golo Kante.
Having won the Premier League back-to-back with Leicester City and Chelsea and the World Cup in the summer with France in a defensive midfield role, one of Sarri’s first decisions was to move him into a more advanced role to make way for Jorginho to play the holding role.
His reason is that the Italian is able to move the ball and start attacks better than Kante, something that is central to ‘Sarri-ball’.
The decision has already had thousands of words written on it – Sarri has fielded question after question about the decision and has remained devout to his principle that Jorginho should play the holding role in his Chelsea side.
But having Kante further forward means the Blues’ midfield isn’t as balanced as it could be, and for me the fault of that doesn’t lie with either Jorginho or the Frenchman, but rather with Mateo Kovacic.
The Croatian was signed in the summer on loan from Real Madrid to slot into Sarri’s midfield three, a trio that has become vital in his side’s way of playing while at Napoli.
There, Marek Hamsik played the role that Kovacic plays at Stamford Bridge and under Sarri enjoyed some of the best football of his life, becoming a goal scoring midfielder and pivotal to Sarri-Ball.
Hamsik become synonymous with Napoli and thrived under Sarri out on the left, a part of the pitch the manager places great emphasis on in an attacking sense, while on the other side Allan’s tenacity in a box-to-box role ensured Napoli had a hard worker who wasn’t afraid to get their hands dirty next to the elegant Jorginho.
It’s clear that Sarri sees Kante as his Allan at Chelsea – the Frenchman is the better player and there’s probably not a better reader of the game from a defensive midfield standpoint in the world at the moment, while he has proved he is able to add goals to his game this season.
But the problem lies in that other midfield role, the ‘Hamsik Role’ if you would like.
Kovacic has played regularly under Sarri since arriving from the Bernabeu in the summer but has yet to score any goals in the blue of Chelsea in the league, while he’s only assisted twice.
He trails Kante’s stats in every department, both attacking and defensive, and more often that not has fans wondering what exactly he does on the pitch.
Kovacic’s stats are more rounded than the other two players who are vying for that role, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but the specific position that Sarri wants all three to play means they need to add goals to their game.
It’s why Chelsea struggle to support their forwards in the attacking phases of games – the Blues have rarely added goals from midfield this season, relying on Eden Hazard and the rest of the forwards to hit the back of the net.
Should Sarri remain in charge of Chelsea and they get their transfer ban overturned or, at the very least, postponed, this position is one that he will most certainly look at in terms of strengthening.
Kovacic hasn’t been the part of the trio that Sarri was hoping for – he hasn’t got the ability to score the goals like Hamsik did at Napoli while he is often overshadowed by Hazard on that left hand side.
It’s easy to criticise Sarri for where he’s played Kante this season, after all, the 27-year-old won the league twice and the World Cup in that holding position, while it’s also easy to say that the Frenchman himself hasn’t performed as well as he should have judging by recent years.
But the main criticism should be levelled towards Kovacic, who hasn’t been able to adapt and mould himself to the Sarri system like some of the other Chelsea players have done.
As a result, it leaves the side without an attacking midfielder who is able to support the forwards and get in amongst the goals, especially down the left hand flank – Hazard is often the only attacking threat that Chelsea have down that side.
Given time, Kante could become Sarri’s Allan at Chelsea, but without finding someone capable of playing the Hamsik role the side will continue to struggle to score and break down stubborn teams.
Kovacic’s loan spell is up in the summer, now is the bet time for Sarri to look elsewhere to find someone to fill that hole in his attacking arsenal.