On Saturday, Chelsea signed Napoli midfielder Jorginho for £50.4 million. For a club openly mocked over their scattergun transfer activity in recent years, the deal was surprising for two reasons. Firstly, due to the quickness with which it was completed and, secondly, that they pipped champions Manchester City to his signature.
While the unedifying process of sacking Antonio Conte and freeing Maurizio Sarri from his Napoli contract (an equally petty situation where Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis refused to release Sarri despite replacing him with Carlo Ancelotti) was protracted, they pushed swiftly to recruit the embodiment of his footballing principles. That the Chelsea board sanctioned a signing of a player coveted by the coach – something which irked Conte – is perhaps a gradual recognition that a good workman does indeed require the tools.
Born into a family of Italian immigrants in Brazil, Jorginho spent his formative years in the southern coastal town of Imbituba. Surrounded by ports and idyllic beaches moulded into rocks, the population of roughly 39,000 people featured many German, Portuguese and Italian descendants. His mother was a footballer and thought her son how to play in true samba style on the beach.
At the age of 15, he moved to his ancestral home when signing to Verona’s academy. He progressed through the ranks at pace and after turning 18, he spent a season on loan at Serie C2 side A.C. Sambonifacese before returning to establish a place in the Verona first team. The Gialloblu earned promotion in his first full season and he attracted the attention of leading Serie A clubs and national scouts.
Verona’s coach at the time Claudio Valigi was Jorginho’s biggest fan and gushingly praised him in a recent Sky Sports interview. “He was only 19 but he showed immediately that he had incredible potential. He had great personality and that is something that you can see straight away as a coach. It is not everything but it is the basis.”
From an early age, there was little doubt where Jorginho’s international allegiance lay. In an interview with Tutto Napoli before a call-up was even on the cards, he outlined why Italy, rather than the country of his birth, was his preference. “I grew up in Italy, I’ve never played in Brazil in a club, it’s Italian football that launched me. My sister also has an Italian passport – having citizenship was very important for my future. When I left Brazil at the age of 15 my parents agreed.”
In 2013, he was bought by Napoli but initially struggled for regular opportunities. That was in part due to a fraught and distant relationship with then coach Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard never really understood how to get the best out of him and he was often condemned to the periphery. When Benitez took over at Real Madrid, Jorginho’s agent Joao Santos praised his player’s consistent performances and pointedly remarked that it was only ‘the previous coach’ who had dared playing him out of position.
One man who definitely recognised the talents of Santos’ client was Sarri. The grizzled, chain-smoking Neapolitan took the reigns at his hometown club and immediately built his midfield around Jorginho. Employing a 4-3-3 formation and seeking to dominate possession, the results were staggering. Napoli finished second and third in Sarri’s first two campaigns, and last year pushed Juventus agonisingly close for the Scudetto.
Sarri’s impact was more than just points or near trophy misses though, it was the implementation of a style that won hearts and minds throughout Europe. They played silky, flowing football that bewildered opponents and got the best from almost every frontline player. They scored 77 goals but also allied that with defensive solidity.
Pep Guardiola notably labelled Napoli one of the best teams he’d faced ‘in my life’ and it wasn’t surprising when City attempted to sign him. Jorginho touched the ball 3530 times in Serie A last season and completed 2860 successful passes – the most in Europe’s top five leagues. Guardiola adores that style of midfield metronome, but when Sarri revealed his intentions to the Chelsea board, the 26 year-old decided on following his coach to West London.
Citing Andrea Pirlo and Xavi as inspirations, Jorginho’s style of play roughly resembles those two midfield totems. The ball appears attached to his foot like melted cheese on a toasty and he pops up in unexpected places, leaving rival coaches scratching their heads trying to get him under grips. New Inter Milan recruit Radja Nainggolan perhaps surmised it best. “He distributes the ball very quickly and you get tired of running after it.”
He has the full variety of passes in his armoury and darts around the pitch to receive it back. Unusually for such a slight figure, he also mucks in defensively, averaging 2.1 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game last term. That marks him as a perfect midfielder for the ultra-aggressive pressing Sarri expects from his teams.
The quick reunion should aid Sarri in transmitting ideas and building a Chelsea team in his image. Jorginho perhaps best understands ‘Sarrismo’ and the prospect of a midfield partnership with N’Golo Kante is tantalising. Much is made of Roman Abramovich’s perceived desire for Chelsea to play beautiful football and win admiration, and the oligarch will never have a better chance for that to bear fruit. Sarri can make that dream come through and, in Jorginho, he has his on-field brain.
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Also published on Medium.