There has been no shortage of praise for Maurizio Sarri since he left Empoli three summers ago to take over the club he first fell in love with as a boy. But one glowing reference stands out more than most. In Naples last summer, Fabio Capello made an after dinner speech at the little-known Football Leader Awards, where he credited the enigmatic, chain-smoking coach for making attacking football sexy again.
“Every 20 years there is an innovation in football,” he began. “After Ajax there was Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, then Pep Guardiola, who rather sent football to sleep. But fortunately we now have Maurizio Sarri — who can finally wake football up.”
Napoli have barely slept since. On his very first day in charge, Sarri was summoned to the president’s office and instructed to abandon the defensive approach that characterised the Rafael Benítez era. That didn’t prove to be a problem. He dutifully scrapped Benítez’s rigid 4-2-3-1 and implemented a high-risk, high pressing style of play, admiringly described by L’Equipe as “vertical tiki-taka”. It was to prove immediately successful.
This success was thanks in no small part to the midfielder Sarri decided to install as a first-team regular and the creative heartbeat of his team: Jorginho, who has emerged as Jose Mourinho’s primary transfer target this summer, as exclusively revealed by The Independent yesterday.
It is not hard to see why Mourinho is a fan. Napoli have enjoyed their finest season yet under Sarri, sitting just four points behind perennial champions Juventus in the race for the Scudetto. Joginho is arguably the most visible part of that success; an accomplished regista (or deep-lying playmaker to you and me) who dictates play and makes on average 97.4 passes per match — more than anybody else in the league. In fact, since Opta started collecting data from Serie A in 2004, he holds nine of the top ten sports for the most successful passes played in a single match. He is the man that makes Napoli tick.
That he makes so many passes per match should not be particularly surprising given Sarri’s pass-and-move philosophy, which relies on unceasing ball circulation and the repeated creation of passing triangles. But Jorginho is streets ahead of the number of passes attempted by his team-mates, too, while his high average of key passes per game (1.5) indicates that he spends as much time ambitiously moving play forwards as he does exchanging short, sharp passes with his centre-backs.
In short: he is exactly the kind of composed, creative midfielder that Manchester United are crying out for, as well as a potential successor to the retiring Michael Carrick, who Mourinho has already admitted needs to be replaced as a matter of urgency. “It’s there in midfield where we need to – I’m not saying improve – but we need to get a player to compensate the situation of Michael,” he said in January. “And if Marouane [Fellaini] leaves too, yes we have two gaps there, so let’s see what happens.”
Mourinho’s lack of options in this specialised position has seen him frequently restrict Paul Pogba to a more defensive role, which the Frenchman has struggled to adapt to. Pogba is no defensive midfielder: he played the best football of his career at Juventus when played alongside a deep-lying playmaker, usually Andrea Pirlo, which allowed him to break forward at will in an attacking role between the lines. That’s something he has managed only in flashes this season, most notably during the second-half of this month’s Manchester derby.
Signing Jorginho and stationing him in front of the back four would then free up Pogba — one of the Premier League’s most creative players — to get forward, in much the same way as Marek Hamšík manages at Napoli. It would also enable Mourinho to settle on a midfield three, the formation which by far brings the best out of Pogba, with either Nemanja Matić or Scott McTominay deployed in a more defensive role.
Jorginho, who moved to Napoli from Hellas Verona in 2013 and turns 27 midway through next season, is arguably also more versatile than any of United’s current midfielders, and can also be used in a more conventional defensive midfield position. He is an accomplished defender — making more interceptions per match (1.4) than any of his team-mates this season — and would allow Mourinho to switch to his infamous double pivot in matches against United’s direct rivals, a strategy he has been far more hesitant to rely on at United than at his previous clubs.
Of course, Mourinho’s famous pragmatism could be enough to deter Jorginho from agreeing to the move, particularly as he is such an acolyte of Sarri’s attacking philosophy. “I feel very good with Sarri, he’s a great teacher and I admire his philosophy of the game a lot.” Jorginho has said previously, while Liverpool’s reported interest in him also muddies the waters.
It should not be forgotten that United have other options, too. Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos has long been seen as an ideal replacement for Carrick but is prohibitively expensive, while The Independent understands Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Weigl, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred and Valencia’s Carlos Soler are all on a shortlist of players drawn up by Mourinho ahead of the transfer window re-opening this summer.
But Jorginho has had a better season than all of those names and also appears to be the best fit for United. Not only would he provide as close to a like-for-like replacement for Carrick as the club are likely to get, but he would also help bring the best out of Pogba, a player that United simply have to build their team around if they are to wrest the title away from City next year.
Factor in too that he is one of the best passing midfielders in Europe, and United’s interest in him makes such perfect sense.
What Jorginho’s agent told the Italian press this week
“We’ll talk about his contract situation at the end of the season. If the club wants to do something, we are ready to talk after May 20.
“Jorginho is happy at Napoli, he is first choice in a team that is challenging for the Scudetto. He is also first choice in the Italy squad, so it’s only normal some English clubs will ask for information.
“Having said that, there is nothing official.”
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