Nineteen hard fought matches down and it’s all smiles for Napoli and manager Maurizio Sarri. They lead Serie A at the halfway stage, 2 points clear of Juventus. With Inter and Fiorentina both struggling to match the current consistency of Napoli and Juve, it’s looking increasingly likely that Sarri’s men will pose the biggest threat to The Old Lady from Turin as Juventus seek a fifth straight Serie A title. Napoli themselves haven’t won the Scudetto since 1990 when a certain Diego Maradona was leading the charge for the Naples based club. Back to 2016 however and Napoli’s chances look better by the game; led by a fascinating coach in Maurizio Sarri, the Partenopei are playing some breathtaking football with No.8 Jorginho as the central hub.
Maurizio Sarri was appointed as Napoli Head Coach in the Summer of 2015. A Napoli fan born in Naples he is one of the more likeable men in football using his talent, passion and dedication to take him from the 6th tier of Italian football to his dream of coaching Napoli. Sarri once responded to a question about his possible anger at being the lowest paid coach in Serie A with “Angry? Let’s not joke. They pay me for something I would have done for free after work. I’m lucky.” His coaching style is extremely tactical, known as ‘Mister 33’ (after preparing 33 potential set-play situations whilst in charge of Sansovino) he spends hours every day studying and creating football tactics. Sarri has spent years tweaking and perfecting the 4-3-3 system he currently employs at Napoli, a system that requires a seriously talented and well-balanced central pivot to work around. Former Verona midfielder Jorginho is that pivot.
Signed in January of the 2014 season, Jorginho had a solid start to his Napoli career which included playing all 90 minutes of their 3-1 Coppa Italia victory against Fiorentina. As Napoli struggled throughout the 14/15 season however, so did Jorginho, starting just 14 league games and never really showing the talent he had meant his Napoli future was in doubt. The arrival of a new head coach in the summer as well as the signings of Allan and in particular Valdifiori (Sarri’s midfield pivot whilst manager at Empoli) added to the possibility that his time at Napoli could be nearing it’s end. However, having started the first 3 games on the bench, his exceptional performances in the back-to-back 5-0 victories vs first Club Brugge then Lazio helped quickly ascend Jorginho from rotational player to vital first teamer. Playing in a slightly deeper role than previously in his career, Jorginho is now a huge tactical key in an extremely talented Napoli side as they chase that elusive Scudetto.
Napoli’s preferred formation under Maurizio Sarri has been a very offensive and aggressive 4-3-3. The focus of the system is to completely control a large percentage of the ball and space on the pitch within the match, looking to impose their strong technical ability on their opponents after first utilising their speed and aggression in a high in-to-out pressing style. This high, aggressive pressing style, looking to win possession of the ball quickly, is the first phase in such an offensive style. The final phase is the critical part, being able to bury their opponents by finishing off any chances that they are able to create. Having the league’s top goalscorer in Gonzalo Higuain (18 goals) along with the support of Lorenzo Insigne (8 goals) has been huge in this respect. The second phase of play, however, is where Napoli have been most impressive and Jorginho has been the most influential. The passage of play between winning the ball back and looking to score at the other end is crucial for a team looking to play an aggressive, controlling system; variation, intelligence and team understanding are the key components of what make this part of the system work. Second phase football doesn’t just mean retaining possession with needless passes until deciding or being forced into trying to attack the opposition, it’s about how Napoli recycle the ball and move as a unit in order to impose themselves on their opposition. Napoli have excelled in this area with 2 main tactics, often using a long succession of short passes and sharp rotations looking to slowly push up the pitch and pin back, before ultimately pulling apart, an opponent’s defensive structure, whilst also using a quick counter with more direct passes and vertical sprinting looking to quickly exploit space left by an opponent’s attack.
Jorginho’s role as the Regista in this crucial passage of play really cannot be understated. Playing in the centre of the midfield three, Jorginho’s main job is to recycle possession intelligently whilst maintaining his position as a reference point for wider and more offensive players to work off. Essentially playing as a pivot, Jorginho’s positioning and ball retention ability both offensively and defensively is what triggers the movements of his teammates and allows the team to play such a risky and offensive style. The two full backs are able to push on, central midfielders can play wider and wingers can play higher and narrower because of Jorginho’s tactical discipline. It’s a strong balancing act for Jorginho. Off the ball he has to ensure that he is close enough to his midfield partners to maintain a strong pressing shape both when Napoli are and aren’t in possession of the ball. Jorginho, however, must also maintain a position to effectively cover his full backs if an opponent looks to counter attack and also look to cut off an opponent’s central passing lanes when they look to attack using vertical passes through the channels into the pockets. On the ball he is seen as the middle man for Napoli, dropping deeper to receive possession from his defenders or goalkeeper he has to use his intelligence and exceptional passing ability to build attacks from the back. Rotating passes with his fellow central midfielders and often Lorenzo Insigne (so often playing in the pocket as an inside forward), Jorginho’s game is based around using short, grounded passes as well as more direct, vertical (but still often grounded) passes whilst rotating his position to force an opponent out of his defensive line, creating space for Napoli to attack the final third. His impressive passing stats reflect this. Jorginho attempts on average a staggering 97 passes per Serie A game at an extremely impressive 90% success rate. This passes-per-game average is the highest of any player in Europe’s top 5 leagues and just goes to show how strong Jorginho is at recycling possession in order to push his team up the pitch whilst forcing his opponents to press more and tire quicker.
Jorginho’s performance against Club Brugge pushed him into Sarri’s Serie A starting line up for the first time this season, playing in the regista role in the side’s emphatic 5-0 victory over Lazio. Napoli completely controlled the game, boasting 64% possession and restricting Lazio to just one shot on target. Jorginho was an integral part of this brilliant team performance, playing 99 passes at a 96% accuracy along with three interceptions he controlled the centre of midfield. The early stages of the game are where Napoli’s pressing game was so important. Using an in to out system Napoli press in 2 waves: firstly Hamsik pushes alongside Higuain (leaving Jorginho/Allan deeper) to force Lazio wide before Insigne and Callejon press up the wings. Jorginho’s role in Napoli’s pressing game was extremely important in scoring an early goal and gaining control of the match. His aggressively high starting position meant that when the ball turned over in the Lazio right back area and a pass is played down the line, Jorginho was able to get across quickly and, with Ghoulam, double up on Matri and force the mistake. This mistake gifted the ball to Higuain and the striker finished clinically and emphatically, a sight we’ve become very used to seeing from the Argentine. Once Napoli’s strong pressing game earns them an early lead and forces Lazio to chase the game, Jorginho drops deeper looking to use his positioning and passing ability to further control the game and build attacks from deep. This meant that in trying to chase the game, Lazio were pushing players forward to cut Napoli off at their source but ended up just leaving space for Napoli’s more offensive players to penetrate. This tactic is what leads to the 2nd goal. Jorginho drops into the left back area vacated by Ghoulam and as he lets the ball roll across his body and goes deeper into his own half no less than 5 Lazio players take the chance to press high. Jorginho chooses a more aggressive and risky short pass into Koulibaly over the simple pass back to Reina and consequently Napoli (via a series of short precise passes including Hamsik, a pushed on Ghoulam and a free Insigne in the pocket) are able to exploit the space created by those Lazio players pressing and Allan breaks through to score. This aggressive and risky style means the tactic takes a strong amount of understanding and trust within the Napoli unit. Two huge intangibles that have made Napoli so impressive and have been perfectly exemplified by Jorginho.
This video shows the first two goals vs Lazio and Jorginho’s role in each. Two different types of goals and tactics by Jorginho but with the same end result.
Playing the Regista role in such a controlling, offensive style isn’t just about simply pressing high early then dropping deep. Jorginho has to be continuously aware of his own position and how it affects his teammates. Their freedom to move and play in the style Sarri requests comes directly from the positions Jorginho takes as the team’s pivot. As the second half wore on we saw Jorginho playing short give and go’s with several of his teammates whilst drifting all over the pitch both vertically and horizontally creating space for players both ahead and behind him. These short, quick passes along with little movements into pockets of space just wide of centre were key in bringing Lazio’s pressing units into different areas of the pitch, areas of the pitch which meant they weren’t able to put Napoli’s back 4 under pressure when they were in possession. Jorginho’s intelligence in his passing and his movement was a huge key in helping Napoli fully impose themselves on the game at 2-0, it didn’t matter that Napoli went on to score five as Lazio chased them, the game was under their complete control and only a horror show of errors would have seen them not go on to win the match.
This 37 second clip from the second half of the match shows a perfect execution of Jorginho’s role when Napoli are comfortable in a match. He drifts from side to side recycling possession linking with defenders and midfielders alike whilst staying perfectly positioned, allowing Napoli to move the ball from right to left and forward to back whilst always remaining a passing option for the player on the ball. The key part of the video however comes at the very end, as Koulibaly has possession Jorginho takes 2 or 3 steps towards his own goal, momentarily attracting the attention of his marker and allowing David Lopez to move into space and begin to attack.
Napoli have only lost once with Jorginho in the starting lineup this season and the mistakes that cost them that game are mistakes that both Sarri and Jorginho will need to learn from to ensure they’re at their best to challenge for the Scudetto. Napoli were flying heading into the game, fourteen wins in their last sixteen games in all competitions, and were fresh off the back of a huge top of the table victory over Inter Milan. The confidence they took into this game proved to be their undoing however, playing too aggressively in the first half an hour against a well-drilled Bologna side managed by the vastly experienced Roberto Donadoni. Despite being five years younger than Maurizio Sarri, Donadoni has been managing at the highest level in Italy for over a decade now and even managed the Italian national side from 2006 through to the end of the 2008 European Championships. Thinking that they could go to Bologna and comfortably turn over Donadoni’s side by being more aggressive in their pressing and attacking was a little naive by Sarri and on the pitch by Jorginho, who learnt a key lesson in the opening half an hour of that game.
Jorginho pressed way too high and not in tandem with his teammates. There were times in the first half an hour where Jorginho was pressing ahead of both Allan and Hamsik. This aggressive high pressing wouldn’t have been such a big issue had Donadoni not noticed and made sure his 3 forwards immediately started making runs in behind the Napoli defence from very high starting positions. This left a large gap between Napoli’s midfield and defence and meant Bologna were able to exploit the Napoli defenders individual weaknesses. Being so high also meant that Bologna central midfielders could engage Jorginho then look to drag him out of position. A few times we saw Taider engage Jorginho, pass out wide then make a diagonal run in to a wide area. This forced Jorginho to decide to track him and leave space centrally for Bologna to exploit or let Taider run free and risk Bologna overloading Napoli in the wide areas. There were several occasions before, during and just after the first goal where Napoli were caught out, either in behind the slow Albiol or with space being left for Bologna attackers to isolate and run directly at Koulibaly. The big Frenchmen has been impressive for Napoli this season but still struggles defending one-on-one against tricky forwards. On the ball Jorginho was finding it hard to influence the game as well. His high starting position meant it was easy for Bologna to mark him with one from midfield (often Diawara) as well as the centre forward (Destro) sticking tight to him on either side. With 2 men staying tight to Jorginho it meant that Napoli couldn’t build their attacks around a pivot and reliable passer. Full backs were pushing at different times and offensive players were having to retrieve sloppy penetrative passes played by the centre backs. The fix was easy for Jorginho, he had to drop deeper in order to gain possession and force Diawara to make a decision but by the time he had figured this out Napoli were 2 goals down and chasing the game.
When Jorginho and Napoli did switch up their tactics however, we did see a strong revival from Napoli and they could have well been level before Reina’s mistake allowed Bologna to take a three goal advantage. Once Jorginho started to drop deeper he was able to open the game up for his teammates with his positioning and passing ability and Napoli started to dominate the match. Sarri’s men had their moments just before the break but it was the first few minutes after half time where they totally dominated the match and, creating chances for Higuain, Callejon and Hamsik with a bit more of the ruthlessness in the final third they have shown this season, Napoli could have quite comfortably overturned the deficit. It was however to be Bologna’s day as Destro’s low effort squeezed passed the Napoli goalkeeper to give Bologna a 3-0 lead on the hour mark, a scoreline that Napoli and Higuain’s late rally couldn’t retrieve as the match finished 3-2. The match will go down as the one that got away from Napoli but if reacted to properly, it could be the game that teaches them the skills they need to win the Scudetto. Modern day managers, in particular recently Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, often look to the reaction of themselves and their teams at tough times. Whether it be going a goal down, losing a match or losing a run of matches, a team and manager’s reaction in these moments is where we can truly see what the side is made of. In dropping deeper and changing the way the game was being played through his individual position Jorginho showed a new found level of understanding in a fairly new role for him and deserves as much praise for his second half performance as criticism for his first half performance.
Jorginho’s best performance in his role as Napoli’s pivot came in his current side’s 2-0 victory over his former side, Hellas Verona. The Brazilian-born midfielder was incomparable as Napoli cruised to the simplest of 2-0 victories at the Stadio Marc-Antonio Bentegodi. Putting in a near perfect performance Jorginho had 212 touches, attempting 195 passes at an astonishing 93.9% completion rate, including NINE key passes (Mesut Ozil averages 4.4 per match, the highest across Europe’s top five leagues). Jorginho’s quite outrageous passing stats in this game were matched only by his superb positioning and intensity as he was key to the aggressive ultra-control system that Sarri’s Napoli carried out faultlessly. The pattern of the match was set in the opening two minutes which I will quickly run you through now:
Immediately we see Napoli’s in to out pressing style as Jorginho, Hamsik and Insigne force Verona back into the right back area. Higuain cuts off the simple backwards pass and Pisano is forced down the line and out of play. As play moves on we see Allan in a deeper position, exchanging passes with Callejon. Jorginho pushes a little higher to create space for Allan then drops in to create an option before dropping further as the ball goes back to the CBs. Jorginho, Hamsik and Allan exchange passes and rotate positions seamlessly as the Verona midfield struggles to find a pressing rhythm. After Ghoulam goes all the way back to Reina, Jorginho takes the ball under pressure twice, forcing Verona to press higher than they want to. With quick lay offs back to Chirches in defence Napoli were able to edge up the field as a unit and pin Verona back.
Then we see Jorginho very advanced, but still deeper than both Hamsik and Allan, receiving the ball unopposed and able to pick the pass of his choice. This moment came about because of the initial pressing and subsequent second phase passing that had gone before. Jorginho doesn’t pick the right pass on this occasion, looking to force a ball in behind the Verona LB, but as the ball breaks down Napoli are so well-drilled and quick in their pressing that they are immediately able win the ball back in the Verona half and start the process over again. Jorginho is pressing extremely high and aggressively, but is able to do so in this instance as Verona don’t have any controlled possession and he is in tandem with his teammates. Neither of these factors were applicable during his careless high pressing against Bologna. Already at this early stage Napoli have total control over the match and are forcing Verona into an extraordinary amount of defensive and physical work. Credit to Verona as they defend resolutely and hang on for a long time but tired bodies make mistakes and the moment their defence switches off, even for a second, and give a player with the quality of Insigne that amount of space in the penalty area, they are punished.
Overall Jorginho’s transition from either a more advanced central midfielder or one half of a double pivot in Rafael Benitez’s Napoli side to the regista and lone pivot in Sarri’s has been extremely successful. Jorginho is beginning to establish himself as one of the best holding midfielders in Italy and is gaining a strong reputation throughout Europe. For Jorginho to take his game to the next level however he needs to start improving the all round defensive portion of the job. The 24 year old is far from incompetent defensively and it can be argued that in such a style Jorginho doesn’t need to defend as much as a regular DM. This may be true but it still remains that to elevate their game to the absolute highest level, any player in this sort of role has to be have a strong defensive awareness and understanding in order to completely protect his defenders and cover for the forwards in front of him, who can struggle to transition quickly in a team so offensive. Jorginho’s base positions when opponents have controlled attacks is good and his ability to win headed duels as well as one-on-one technical battles is also impressive. Where Jorginho needs to develop his game is in his tackling (with his percentage of tackles won being well under 50%) and his all round defensive actions. Jorginho has made just 0.5 clearances and 1.8 interceptions per game, when you compare those numbers to that of Daniele De Rossi (2.1 clearances and 2.7 interceptions) the holding midfield veteran of Roma is the perfect example to any young defensive midfielder.
The defensive side of the game is something that Jorginho can and will develop over time through experience, however nothing should take away from what has been a groundbreaking first half of the season for Napoli’s chief on-field conductor. Under Sarri, Jorginho and Napoli have come such a long way in such a short space of time. Whether or not it will be enough to end the long wait for top flight success however is difficult to say. Stunning football and a real togetherness has put Napoli atop the rest in Italy but a young squad and a manager with no experience of a top fight title challenge could prove to be a real problem. The story of Sarri is a heartwarming one for football fans but sometimes this can be a cruel game and challengers don’t get much tougher than Juventus. I personally hope they win the Scudetto and I look forward to seeing how Jorginho develops as a player and on-field personality in the coming years. He may never hit the incredible heights of Sergio Busquets as the near perfect all-round modern day regista, but Jorginho has so much still to achieve and potential to unlock if time and luck are on his side.