LONDON. – Time moves fast in football. In the short term, it’s remarkable that we’re already preparing for this weekend’s Community Shield fixture at Wembley, just three weeks after France were holding the Soccer World Cup trophy aloft in Moscow.
In the longer term, it’s incredible that Pep Guardiola is now a decade into his managerial career. Other revolutionary managers find themselves washed up 10 years after their “defining” campaign, as Guardiola’s 2008-09 season should probably still be considered. Either they’ve become weighed down by the stress of football management, like Arrigo Sacchi, or they’ve discovered their methods have been replicated and improved upon, like Arsene Wenger found.
Guardiola, a decade on, is still the most revered manager in Europe, having avoided the Sacchi problem by taking a sabbatical year after his Barcelona stint, and avoided the Wenger problem by continuing to evolve his approach and keep his rivals guessing. Since his arrival at Manchester City two years ago, Guardiola’s main two rivals have not included Jose Mourinho, his previous nemesis. The first was Chelsea boss Antonio Conte, who somewhat overshadowed Guardiola in their debut English Premier League campaign, evolving the English top flight with his 3-4-3 and inflicting a memorable 3-1 defeat upon Guardiola at the Etihad.
The second was Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, whose gegenpressing caused Manchester City major problems in direct confrontations, most memorably in the stunning 3-0 Champions League victory at Anfield last season. Unlike Guardiola’s previous run-ins with Mourinho, relations between these managers have been professional and cordial. Guardiola respected Conte, and he respects Klopp.
But he absolutely adores new Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri, who may prove his most entertaining rival thus far.
Conte’s defensive-minded system felt like the opposite of Guardiola’s love of possession play, as did – in a completely different manner – Klopp’s high-energy, aggressive football. But Sarri’s Napoli played in a manner that recalled Guardiola’s Barcelona, their passing so structured and so incisive that it felt like a new iteration of tiki-taka.
The extent to which Sarri asks his players to “provoke” the opposition in possession is quite remarkable, the defenders toying with opponents before suddenly striking passes through them, transferring the ball from defence to attack quickly without a hint of a long ball. It was remarkable to watch and, while Napoli didn’t quite overtake Juventus in the Ialian Serie A, unquestionably highly effective.
Sarri and Guardiola share the same footballing philosophy. When City and Napoli met last season, Guardiola said Sarri’s side was “maybe the best team” he had faced. When Sarri was unveiled at Stamford Bridge last month, he declared Guardiola “a class act, a champion, a genius,” before admitting that overturning the 30-point gap between Chelsea and City from last season would be hugely difficult.
City boast two years of experience in Guardiola’s methods, Chelsea’s barely a month in their man’s. City have a better starting XI, a better squad and more tactical variety. What do Chelsea have? Well, Chelsea have Jorginho.
If Chelsea do upset City this season, Jorginho’s decision to choose royal blue rather than sky blue could prove crucial. Guardiola was desperate for the Brazilian-turned-Italian to join City and operate as his deep-lying playmaker. Instead, Jorginho elected to follow Sarri to Chelsea.
The importance of Sarri bringing across such a key player in his Napoli system cannot be underestimated: his instinctive knowledge of Sarri’s methods will transform Chelsea. The deep-lying playmaker in the 4-3-3 is the most pivotal player in dictating a side’s style, and therefore Chelsea’s immiment ideological evolution will be somewhat smoother.
A top-quality deep-lying playmaker is arguably the one thing City lack. Fernandinho is an outstanding footballer, much appreciated by Guardiola and probably slightly underrated in possession. But he’s not of the calibre of Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso, two players Guardiola depended upon elsewhere. He’s more of a worker, more of a foot soldier.
Jorginho, though, has the potential to become the world’s best in his position, and players in his position tend to peak around the age of 30. Jorginho is only 26.
Not only is Jorginho the type of player City cannot rely upon, he’s also an unfamiliar prospect for Chelsea. For years Chelsea have relied upon steady, dependable defensive midfielders who held their position, tackled and kept their distribution simple. From Didier Deschamps to Claude Makelele, John Obi Mikel to N’Golo Kante, Chelsea’s holding midfielder has been defensive rather than creative, with Makelele having that selfless role named after him, and Mikel converted from an overtly creative youngster to a pure functional player. Chelsea have never been renowned for good football under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, in part because they’ve consistently lacked deep midfielders capable of progressive and incisive distribution. The match tomorrow kicks-off at 4pm.