Chelsea’s win over Newcastle was a success in only the most modest terms. For long periods, Maurizio Sarri’s succeeded only in provoking local ire and raising heart rates. As limited as Rafael Benitez’s side may be, they went down swinging at Stamford Bridge. Ciaran Clark equalised Pedro’s opening goal with a fine near-post header and, while they never added to their tally, Newcastle did an efficient job of exploiting a carelessness which hung in the air for much of the afternoon.
Mistakes happen and sometimes, no matter how much a crowd grumbles, the right focus remains elusive. Chelsea had played Tottenham just four days previously, so perhaps imperfections were inevitable. Of more concern was the poverty of imagination, though: the lack of smart angles or cutting passes, and the crawling speed of their football.
It suggested a disconnect between what Chelsea are supposed to be and what they currently are. Sarri wasn’t recruited for his achievements, he has never won a major trophy, but instead for his ability to construct a spectacle. Football which is quick and precise, which scythes vertically through an opponent. Sarri remains barely six months into his new job, that’s an important caveat, but Chelsea are as stylistically different from the Napoli team he left behind as it’s possible to be and, if anything, it’s a gap which is actually widening.
Heading into the current transfer period, most of the club’s energies are being directed towards finding a new forward. But that search shouldn’t come at the expense of the midfield, which increasingly looks unsuited to the task at hand. Cesc Fabregas has gone and, given his age and inability to feature across an entire season, rationally so. But easy as his departure has been to understand, it has served to illustrate just how scarce his attributes were. His rare passing ability will be missed, of course, but so too will be the gear changes he provided. It’s a difficult strength to quantify properly, but Fabregas had it: with the ball at his feet, he could alter a game’s speed and that, unfortunately, is the glaring weakness accentuated by his sale.
After the game, Sarri admitted that had the midfielder not been sold in the days before, Fabregas would have been brought on to replace Jorginho, who struggled badly for impact. True as that may be, the problem seemed to occur further forward. Ahead of Jorginho, N’Golo Kante has adapted well to his adjusted role, but Matteo Kovacic was often ponderous in possession, reluctant to take risks and seemingly unwilling to put the ball in harm’s way.
Of course, Kovacic isn’t individually responsible for Chelsea’s lack of temperament or cutting edge, but it does suggest that he’s being asked to play a role to which he’s not suited. That position – the most advanced of the midfield-three – has to be more aggressive and has to be filled by someone willing to defer to ambition. If not, the result is a speed bump in the middle of the field: passes which should go forward instead go backwards or to the side, and the pace which is so fundamental to Sarri’s style of play drains from the move, allowing a defence to settle behind the ball.
Everything else, Chelsea can survive. They can cope with the lack of a recognised forward and, through rotation, can find a way beyond the inconsistency of their attacking-midfielders. What they cannot overcome and what will continue to prevent their growth, is passivity in a position from which they’re supposed to draw attacking energy.
It must be fixed – not with a player who broadly fits the profile or whose acquisition makes commercial sense for the club, but an actual specialist.