It is a measure of how important Jorginho is to Maurizio Sarri that Chelsea’s new manager was willing to risk a friendship to sign him from Napoli. Business mattered more than his personal relationship with Pep Guardiola, whose plan to strengthen Manchester City’s midfield went up in smoke when Sarri finally arrived in west London last month.
Until that appointment City were at the front of the queue for Jorginho, with a £50m deal for the Brazilian-born Italian midfielder seemingly a formality. Yet the situation changed when Sarri, who built his Napoli side around Jorginho, ended his wait to join Chelsea. The Italian’s bond with Guardiola was not as strong as his admiration for one of the classiest passers in Europe.
City had been ambushed and the frustration for the Premier League champions is that Jorginho surely would have been lining up for them in Sunday afternoon’s Community Shield if Chelsea had replaced Antonio Conte with someone other than Sarri. Instead the 26-year‑old will be an opposition player at Wembley, much to Guardiola’s disappointment.
Jorginho’s change of heart was the kind of twist that can tear friends apart. Yet when Sarri was asked about the transfer on Friday afternoon, his smile made it clear that he has no regrets. He will speak to Guardiola to make sure there are no hard feelings but his main concern is helping Chelsea close the gap on City. “We need Jorginho more than City, so it’s right that Jorginho is here,” Sarri said. “Pep has great midfielders. Fernandinho is a wonderful player.”
After finishing fifth last season, Chelsea might have been expected to be more active in the transfer market this summer. Yet the transfer window shuts on Thursday and the only player to follow Jorginho through the door has been Robert Green, a back-up goalkeeper who did not play once after joining Huddersfield last August. The mood at Stamford Bridge is uncertain and Sarri knows matching City will be tough. Yet the 59-year-old, who sees Jorginho as the first piece of the jigsaw, is not the type to complain about signings.
“The last Premier League table told me City 100, Chelsea 70 points,” Sarri said. “We have to try to reduce 30 points and I know only one way: to work. My job is to improve my players. I don’t think every problem can be resolved by the market.”
Speaking of problems, one that Chelsea could do without is a saga involving Eden Hazard. Real Madrid have targeted the forward since selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus and Hazard suggested that it could be time for him to seek a new challenge after helping Belgium finish third at the World Cup. Yet when Sarri spoke to the 27-year-old three days ago, he was not left with the impression that his best player is about to leave.
While Madrid have until the European transfer window shuts on 31 August to pursue players from English clubs, Hazard might find Sarri’s methods to his liking when he returns from holiday on Monday, after a break extended because of his exertions in Russia. Sarri has spoken a lot about the importance of having fun on the football pitch, which explains why he gets on so well with Guardiola. His attacking 4-3-3 system made Napoli brilliantly entertaining and it feels unlikely that he will ever park the bus against City.
Hazard was aggrieved with Conte’s defensive tactics when Chelsea meekly lost 1-0 to City in March, observing that he could have played for three hours and still not received the ball, but Sarri’s philosophy is to play on the front foot. “If it’s possible – sometimes it’s not possible – I’d like to defend in the other half,” he said.
Yet whether Chelsea have the players to go toe-to-toe with City is debatable. Sarri is under no illusions about the size of the task. He is still haunted by the memory of City tearing into his Napoli side in the Champions League last October. “The first 20 minutes were a nightmare,” he said. “It was horrible.”
City won 2-1 before triumphing 4-2 in Naples two weeks later. Yet Sarri will still tell his new team to play with Napoli’s fearlessness. “I’d like my players to have the personality and be able to think that we are at the same level,” he said. “Maybe at the moment it’s not true, but they have to start to think that they can play against everybody in every stadium, against every team.” With Jorginho in his team, Sarri’s vision could become reality.