Maurizio Sarri has officially taken over with the Blues following Antonio Conte‘s sacking, and the new Italian manager has already helped the club ensure it will have one of the best (if not the best) midfields in the Premier League thanks to his first signing.
Former Napoli central midfielder Jorginho has joined the Stamford Bridge side to form a formidable partnership in the middle of the park alongside French superstar N'Golo Kante.
It’s that relationship amongst the two ball winners that could really propel the Blues into another gear, after the club had its moments of struggle last season after Nemanja Matic‘s departure for Manchester United.
Now, several names in the attack have been rumored to be nearing moves away from Chelsea, including Eden Hazard and Willian, which would clearly be a devastating blow to Sarri’s plans in his first season in charge.
Both Hazard and Willian are sure-fire starters under any manager, but that is of course assuming that they remain with the club ahead of next month.
As the squad is currently constructed, the Blues are missing a traditional number 10 attacker that sits behind the striker, although Hazard has the freedom to roam throughout the pitch as necessary.
That will likely leave a third slot open in the midfield if Sarri aims to use a traditional 4-3-3, and it could very well go to Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who comes back from a loan spell at Crystal Palace last season.
Loftus-Cheek is a bit more of a creative player than a Kante or Jorginho, however, he possesses the size and physicality necessary to track back defensively when needed, which gives Sarri flexibility in his tactical makeup.
Meanwhile, striker Alvaro Morata’s future with the club remains unknown as well, with recent reports suggesting that Sarri could aim to bring in Argentina international Gonzalo Higuain in a straight swap of players.
Behind Morata sits Olivier Giroud, who struggled in much of his time with the Blues over the latter half of the 2017/18 campaign, while Tammy Abraham has become an intriguing prospect for the Blues as well.
It remains to be seen, though, if Abraham will get a crack with the first team this season or be sent out on loan once again.
With less than a month until the start of the PL season, Sarri has his work cut out for himself, after bringing in a positive player to bolster the club’s midfield with Jorginho.
Defensively, there are still some questions, particularly in regards to how the back line will align itself.
Conte’s three-back system will likely dissolve following his exit, as Sarri employs a traditional four-back setup similar to what he used in Serie A.
Cezar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso are almost certainties at the two outside back positions, while centrally the club boasts a solid amount of depth.
The World Cup final is nearly here, and with that, a look at the tactical proficiencies of each side is at hand.
France has done just enough to sneak by every opponent thus far, earning all but one of their five wins to this point by one goal. However, they come into the final against Croatia as heavy favorites thanks to a star-studded lineup that has performed on multiple levels thus far in Russia.
Didier Deschamps has to this point stuck with a standard 4-5-1 formation that allows the team to stay compact defensively, control the midfield and pick chances up front. Kylian Mbappe has been given the flexibility to take players on down the right and find teammates in the middle. Against Belgium, France was comfortable to concede 64% possession to the opponents and allow Mbappe to create chances for the other attackers.
This presents a different challenge for Croatian boss Zlatko Dalic than he faced against England, when Croatia stretched Gareth Southgate‘s midfield with quality full-back play. That won’t work as well against the 4-3-3, meaning Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic will have to stay home. It will be interesting to see if Deschamps continues to deploy Blaise Matuidi on the right to defend Ante Rebic and look to pummel Vrsaljko, or if he will change things up and bring on Ousmane Dembele to pin Vrsaljko back with his pace and technical abilities. Matuidi appeared to suffer a significant head injury in the semifinal against Belgium, but reports say he is still in contention to play on Sunday.
France’s unbalanced setup with Matuidi on one side and Mbappe on the other has done the job so far, but it has presented some problems as well. For one, it has exposed right-back Benjamin Pavard at times, who has held his own for the most part but occasionally looked overwhelmed. In addition, on the other side of the back line, Lucas Hernandez has been sensational defending the left, but his attacking presence is minimal, and aside from a quality cross or two, his defensive mindset along with Matuidi’s lumbering style leaves France incredible lopsided. That means Vrsaljko and Rebic could potentially see a lot of the ball again, stretching France’s midfield the same way it did England’s.
Another problem for France could be that Antoine Griezmann hasn’t looked entirely comfortable sitting behind Olivier Giroud, and has performed in spots this World Cup, with two of his three goals this tournament coming from the penalty spot.
However, all problems are minimized when a team has N'Golo Kante marauding through the middle of the pitch. Kante’s presence gives France a huge leg up on shutting down Croatia’s strongest midfield duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. The latter especially has starred under the bright Russian lights this summer, and has especially roared loudest in the second half of matches when given more freedom to push forward. Modric has shown a desire to get forward and make a difference, unless he’s tasked with marshalling the midfield with Rakitic. For the most part, the presence of defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic has had a notable impact on Modric’s proficiency pushing forward on the ball. In the 90 minutes or so Brozovic has been on the bench – the first hour of the group opener against Nigeria and the first half of their quarterfinal matchup against Russia – Modric was noticeably hesitant moving into attacking positions. Expect Brozovic to start so Croatia can hope to match the French midfield wall of Kante and Paul Pogba, leaving Modric and Rakitic to try and stretch Kante into double duty.
The final key tactical battle will be in the French penalty area. It pits poacher extraordinaire Mario Mandzukic against aerially sound defenders Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane. In the semifinal, Belgium pummeled the French penalty area with a whopping 26 crosses, only five of which met its mark – four of which came either at or outside the penalty spot. Croatia’s approach against England was similar, subjecting the Three Lions defense to the soccer equivalent of an artillery bombardment, attempting 40 crosses in their semifinal meeting. Only three of those were successful, but one assisted Ivan Perisic’s 60th minute equalizer.
All eyes will be on N’Golo Kante in his high-profile midfield battle against Modric and Perisic, but there is plenty more for Didier Deschamps to contend with. France will have its hands full with deserving finalists Croatia, and the chess match that will ensue in Moscow on Sunday will be nothing short of fascinating.
Both Didier Deschamps and Zlatko Dalic have fielded very settled teams throughout this competition and after gruelling runs to the final, both look set to leave their teams as settled as possible. Dalic will go with his “golden generation” as they’re almost at the end of their international careers, while Deschamps will put faith in his young squad to get them over the line.
France have a very settled back four as young full backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez have been revelations at this tournament, plus Hugo Lloris is well and truly back to his best. The midfield trio picks itself, as long as Matudi is fit, as Tolisso is ready to come in if the PSG midfielder doesn’t recover from his knock against Belgium. Up top Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann will look to wreck havoc underneath targetman Olivier Giroud, with Ousmane Dembele ready to come off the bench when needed.
Croatia (4-3-3 formation)
—– Subasic —–
—- Vrsaljko —- Lovren —- Vida —- Strinic —-
—- Modric —- Brozovic —- Rakitic —-
—- Rebic —- Mandzukic —- Perisic —-
Following Sime Vrsaljko’s incredible recovery from injury to face England, Dalic’s two main injury concerns are Mandzukic and Strinic who both limped off in the semifinal. Lovren and Vida have been solid at center back, while the midfield has stolen the show for Croatia. Yes, we all know and love Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic for their silky passing and incredible workrate (Modric has covered 63 km during the tournament, more than any other player) but Marcelo Brozovic has been brilliant in winning the ball back and feeding his midfield partners. Up top Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic have worked tirelessly out wide and Mandzukic should be fit to lead the line after his game-winner against England. If he isn’t, expect Andrej Kramaric to come in with the Hoffenheim forward a handy attacking option off the bench too.
Yes, Antoine Griezmann is a midfielder, but he’s a fourth forward if N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are at their very best. Croatia’s midfield triangle has been responsible for much of its World Cup success, and will need to keep that up if it hopes to collect an upset.
Mandzukic renews acquaintances with La Liga CBs…
Two goals in the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid, one the year before in the final, and an assist in that UCL run-up versus Barcelona.
So, yes, Real’s Raphael Varane and Barca’s Samuel Umtiti have tangled with him a time or two. And the big Croatian striker Mandzukic really seems to be rounding into form.
…And Giroud versus Lovren and Co.
Olivier Giroud has yet to score in the tournament, but sleeping on his industrious performance up top is a mistake. Dejan Lovren has branded himself “one of the best defenders in the world” based on this tournament and his Champions League run with Liverpool.
If France needs to whip crosses toward Giroud, we’d expect things could look a bit like the below highlight reel. Check around the 1:00 mark of this video:
From Russia’s blowout opener and the Spain-Portugal thriller right down to Wednesday’s semifinal tussle between Croatia and England, this tournament has been as close to unforgettable as we’ve seen in some time.
The ProSoccerTalk staff is answering questions ahead of Sunday’s final.
Forget their age, Who would you rather have in your midfield for a one-game winner-take-all final: N'Golo Kante or Luka Modric?
Joe Prince-Wright: Luka Modric on current form. But only just. Does all the simple things well and forces opponents to totally change their defensive shape.
Nicholas Mendola: Kante is amazing, but there are a few players of his ilk/style that can come close to replicating what he does so well. Modric types are more difficult to find, and given the insane year he’s had — much of it his doing — I’m amazed he’s been able to stay so laser-focused.
Kyle Bonn: Modric has had a wonderful World Cup and may win the Golden Ball, but in the modern game, N’Golo Kante is potentially the most valuable piece of any top European team, and any teambuilding starts with him.
MattReed: It’s such a tough decision because they offer such different aspects, but if you’re looking for a player that does what he’s asked every single match I’m going with N’Golo Kante. His positioning and tactical awareness are always flawless, and Kante’s ability to essentially serve as a fifth defender makes life very difficult for opposing sides to break them down.
Dan Karell: I think Modric. He’s just so good all-around, and playing at Real Madrid has taught him the defensive side of the game. He’s certainly not as good defensively as Kante but I think he’s so much better with the ball than Kante is that it outweighs the defensive skill Kante has.
Scale of 1-10, 1 being “not a chance” and 10 being “it’s haaaapppening,” what odds does Croatia have of winning on Sunday?
JPW: 4 out of 10. Croatia’s exertion have to catch up with them soon but France will be very wary.
NM: 3. I don’t want to bet against a relentless Croatia, but France has gotten it done without hitting its top gear. That probably comes Sunday, and the tired Bleus will have a trouble matching that over 90.
KB: 5! I truly believe this is a wide open match. Croatia has earned the right to have an equal chance at winning this game. They have tactically been superior to every team they’ve played so far.
MR: It’s easy to argue that Croatia has benefited from being on the “easier” side of the draw, but they’ve done everything necessary to take care of business and reach this point. That said, the Croats have played an extra game… and then some… with three consecutive extra time efforts. I just don’t envision them being able to find complete fitness ahead of the final, so I’ll go with a 4.
DK: 7. Croatia has defied the odds up till this point in the knockout stages and has grown into every game they’ve played. Assuming they’re still drinking some of MJ’s Secret Stuff and have energy on Sunday, they will surely put France on the defensive. If France doesn’t score a couple of quick goals in the first 20 minutes of the game, Croatia has a great chance to lift the title.
Are Croatia’s three trips to extra time going to crush them?
JPW: Not crush but hamper. France also had an extra day of rest and Croatia have wracked up the miles in this tournament.
NM: That and one day’s less rest is going to make a difference. That’s 90 full minutes and two nervy, adrenaline rides through penalty kicks.
KB: I thought they would against England, yet they were the team with the legs at the end. Hard to have seen that and then bet against Croatia on the grounds of tired legs.
MR: They’ve proven us wrong up until this point, so let’s not rule them out completely. Let’s put it this way though. If France plays up to its potential, especially having had an extra day of rest, Les Bleus will be champions once more.
DK: We’d have assumed, but somehow they’ve survived and continue to get stronger. After the tournament, these guys are going to all need a month-long rest in one of those cryo-chambers, but for now their bodies are holding up.
How has this World Cup affected Paul Pogba‘s reputation, if at all?
JPW: Enhanced it slightly. He’s played well so far without setting the tournament alight but you could say that about everyone apart from Mbappe and Kante for France. Deschamps has everyone doing the dirty work and Pogba has been a lot more regimented at doing that than he was in the past with France and Man United.
NM: His rep has been burnished, as he’s played in both advanced and set-back roles. Honestly, his performances may have justified some of what Jose Mourinho has chosen to do with Pogba’s immense talent.
KB: This is hard to say. We’re so used to praising Pogba on his standout performances with Juventus, but the way he plays these days he doesn’t stand out anymore, even when he has a good match. I don’t think his reputation changes much, even if they win the World Cup.
MR: Pogba may be one of the biggest winners of the World Cup regardless of result on Sunday. He’s taken a lot of heat at Manchester United for not being able to adapt and at times being selfish, but this tournament has shown his willingness to put ego aside and take the squad’s needs to heart. The semifinal performance against Belgium really shed some light on his recent change in play by just breaking up balls and clogging the midfield for Les Bleus.
DK: It’s a tough call. I think part of Pogba’s problem is he is so skilled in so many areas – technique on the ball, speed, strength, aerial ability – that he wants to be 4 players in one instead of just being the best Pogba. In the game against Belgium, he completely wore down Fellaini, no small task against his Man United teammate, and showed excellent control on the ball and vision to keep the ball moving and keep it away from Belgium, or find Mbappe in space down the wings. If that’s Pogba at his best, it’s certainly worth the price of admission.
Who deserves the World Cup’s Golden Ball?
JPW: Probably Modric. He’s been sublime. Kante should be in the running too and if Mbappe scores a few in the final, he may well get it.
NM: Modric is the favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Antoine Griezmann pass Modric and Kylian Mbappe with a fine final.
KB: Whoever has a better match, Mbappe or Modric, will win the Golden Ball. They have both been stunning this tournament.
MR: It has to be Kylian Mbappe. He’s playing on the best team in the tournament right now, but more importantly he’s carrying their attack. Antoine Griezmann has been largely disappointing in this World Cup, while Olivier Giroud has been nearly nonexistent. Had it not been for Mbappe’s pace and skill, France wouldn’t be at this point.
DK: Two words. Luka Modric. Yes, Harry Kane has 6 goals and has been brilliant. But he’s failed to score in each of England’s last two games and he’s also failed to make a real impact on the game. Modric meanwhile has been absolutely stellar for the entire tournament. His consistency is unparalleled and he is a joy to watch. 2nd place would be for N’Golo Kante.
Barring a 4-goal night from Griezmann or Mbappe, Harry Kane will have at least a share of the Golden Boot. Where does he rank in the world right now, as an impact player? Top Five? Top Ten?
JPW: Top five. He delivered in most of England’s games and you would have put your mortgage on him scoring at least one of his two big chances vs. Croatia. Wasn’t meant to be.
NM: He’s on the edge of the Top Five, though admittedly he’s sitting there more for club play than the World Cup. That said, he was quite good even when not facing Panama.
KB: If you asked me 2 weeks ago, I would have told you he ranked in the top 5 strikers in the world, without a doubt. But he underwhelmed in the knockout stages, and I still have questions about his ability to carry a team and produce something out of nothing like a world class striker can. He hasn’t played in too many extra-high leverage matches in his career, and that needs to happen before we consider him world class.
MR: You’re talking about two very different Harry Kane-s. The Tottenham Kane is arguably the best striker in the world. He’s probably a top 5 impact player when with Spurs, but this showing with England was honestly a bit disappointing for me. Some of that has to do with the fact that many of the Three Lions’ attackers were less than impressive, but half of Kane’s goals came from the penalty spot and he only scored once after the group stage. This World Cup won’t hurt his overall stock, but it’s very easy to argue that he wasn’t the best striker in Russia.
DK: Against Sweden and Croatia, his stock dropped significantly. But I’d still say he’s one of the 10 best players in the world. Like Luis Suarez and other great poachers, he has a great knack for being in the right place at the right time, and he’s clinical in front of goal, whether from 12 yards out or 18.
It is not coming home, Pt. 1: Where will time see this England side? Are they a nation returning to consistent contender status, or simply the recipients of good performances and a friendly bracket?
JPW: They’ve given their fans hope but you can’t deny this was a golden chance to reach the final. They were on the easier side of the bracket but this is a young team and they’ll be together for EURO 2020. I expect them to do well in that tournament too with Gareth Southgate at the helm.
NM: The Three Lions were inspiring for the entire run, even in the face of a shaken extra time performance. England is probably set to remain a second-tier team, not too bothered in qualifying but not favored to get to a semi-final. Kane’s continued growth along with consistency for Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford can make a difference.
KB: This is a team on the rise. Gareth Southgate made tactical mistakes in the loss to Croatia, but he is the right man forward, and hopefully England sticks with him through thick and thin. Only Young, Vardy, Delph, and Rose are at an advanced age and will be unlikely to take part in 2022. There is more young talent coming through (think: Sessegnon and Alexander-Arnold). Southgate is a great talent evaluator (think: discovering Maguire as a true international). They will be contenders in Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.
MR: Nearly everything went right for England to reach the semifinals in Russia, but make no mistake, this team is young, hungry and only improving over the next several cycles. Of the squad’s current 23 players, only eight of them are older than 28. The likes of Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford are going to be with this Three Lions side for a very long time, while some of England’s elite youths including Phil Foden and Tammy Abraham will surely make a push into the team. The loss to Croatia is a difficult pill to swallow, but Gareth Southgate’s men instilled a belief in the national team once again, one that will surely grow their confidence heading into Qatar and beyond.
DK: I’m sure time will see this England side as the beginning of a great generation, with Kane, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, John Stones, Jordan Pickford and many more still very young, with more talent challenging the starters coming from the youth ranks. England were awarded plenty of luck from the draw but that’s part of the fun of a World Cup, sometimes you get that luck and sometimes you have to earn it in harder circumstances, like France has from its side of the bracket. Ultimately, this England team made fans believe again and that’s a feat no one would have expected heading into the tournament.
It is not coming home, Pt. 2: Where is it going, and what score line will it bring with it?
JPW: France will win. 3-1.
NM: France, 3-1. It’s 2-0 for a while before Croatia pulls one back and France quickly answers through a substitute.
KB: France takes it on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
MR: France, 2-1.
DK: I think it’s going to Croatia. 2-1 winners. After extra time. Because of course.