When Maurizio Sarri left Chelsea last summer, many expected his on-pitch lieutenant Jorginho to follow him. And if the Italian Brazilian had accompanied Sarri back to Serie A, there wouldn’t have been too many tears spilt at Stamford Bridge.
Yet this season Frank Lampard placed his trust in the midfield metronome and has been handsomely repaid. From being the physical embodiment of all that was wrong with ‘Sarri-ball’, Jorginho has dispelled the doubts and remoulded his game to fit Lampard’s designs. In amongst some up-and-down displays from the Blues, he has become Chelsea’s Mr. Consistent.
That Sarri’s ideals were never fully accepted in west London was well documented. Despite the ostensible successes of a Europa League title, domestic cup final and third-place league finish the Blues faithful felt his game-plan was too predictable, the style insipid and the substitutions repetitive and ineffective.
Jorginho was Sarri’s man, the pass machine who had set the tempo for his style in four years at Napoli and arrived alongside him at the Bridge. So when fans became frustrated with Sarri, castigation of his most loyal employee was a natural consequence.
The most common grievance was that the all-action N’Golo Kante was being played out of position to accommodate a man who looks like he’d be carried away by a strong gust of wind. If you had taken a poll in the middle of last season, plenty of Blues would have told you they would be happy to see the back of their No.5.
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But even through the most rancorous moments, Jorginho remained remarkably cerebral. There were never inflammatory comments in the media or on-pitch displays of petulance. In March 2019, he told ESPN Brasil that, “I am calm because fans are like that: when you don’t win, they complain. I will continue to do my job and, without doubt, I believe I can show my worth and change their minds.”
Jorginho has stayed true to his word. With the player determined to stay and win over supporters, Lampard took the bold decision to maintain him as the deepest of the midfield three with Kante ahead of him. But there have been subtle changes in what was expected of the man born in the Brazilian state of Santa Catrina.
Sarri’s insistence that every pass from midfield be a five-to-ten-yard one was lifted, players given more freedom to play an incisive ball in behind if they believed it was on. Jorginho has not fundamentally changed as a player, he is merely doing what is asked of him, just like he was under Sarri. But the effects of those new demands have been noticeable.
He is completing considerably fewer short passes, around 59 per game compared to 73 last season, but is making far more attempts at playing longer balls, up from 3.4 per 90 minutes last season to 5.9 per 90 this. He has also improved in terms of both interceptions and tackles. The cumulative effect of that is a style far more likely to enamour him to those watching from the stands.
The change was perhaps best summed up by his sublime pass for Tammy Abraham’s goal against Watford in November. Receiving the ball just inside the Watford half, he threaded a delightful first-time through-ball that took five players out of the game and put it on a plate for the young England international.
“My characteristics are to control the game, stay in the middle and organise the team, but I can adapt as well,” Jorginho told Chelsea’s official site earlier in the season. “I have more space to create, and I’m freer so I can do many things with my creativity.”
Lampard clearly feels that the player has earned that licence to improvise, too. What makes Jorginho so special, the manager told Sky in November, is “his attitude and what he does with the group, he’s driven. That’s why I’ve made him vice-captain. He’s one of those infectious players, he cajoles players on the pitch, before the game.”
With so many youngsters in the side, having a level-headed leader, a player who puts in a remarkably consistent performances regardless of opposition or occasion, must feel like a god send for Chelsea’s midfielder-turned-manager.
That Jorginho came through that rough patch and out the other side with credit should be of little surprise, though. He has been through far tougher on his way to the top.
After a humble upbringing in Santa Catarina – where he acquired his passing ability through thousands of hours spent playing the ball backwards and forwards on the beach with his mother – he was whisked off to Italy at the age of 15 by an unscrupulous agent.
After accepting a €35,000 fee to place Jorginho at Hellas Verona, the agent abandoned him, sending him just €20 a week to get by on for two years. Thousands of miles from his family, a teenage Jorginho considered abandoning the game entirely. But he persisted and finally made his way up through the divisions and to the big time at Napoli.
After making it through that sort of challenge, a little bit of criticism from Chelsea fans was never going to put him off.
Under that fragile exterior, there is a tough, resilient man, a leader and a very positive influence to have around. It was not love at first sight, but through dogged determination and a little help from Super Frank, Jorginho has made himself indispensable to the Blues.