National Football

Arsenal Target Jorginho: Italy’s Pirlo Replacement

 • by Frank Smith
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Italy national team boss Giampiero Ventura has been under serious scrutiny in recent months. Due to a draw with Macedonia and a 3-0 defeat to Spain, he was unable to lead the Azzurri to next summer’s World Cup automatically, meaning they must face a tough play-off against Sweden.

The pressure surrounding the head coach only increased due to his consistent unwillingness to call up one of the country’s finest midfielders. Jorginho, the pivot upon which Napoli’s beautiful football is built, was overlooked throughout the qualification campaign. However, with the play-offs looming, he has finally been given a chance.

With Italy needing to come through their two-legged affair with Sweden, the idea of omitting one of the finest passers in Serie A was “unthinkable” according to Ventura’s own former assistant, Carlo Tebi, who also stated:

“The only blame I can attribute to him is that he hasn’t called-up Jorginho. In that case, Ventura is still thinking like a club coach. In his hypothetical team Jorginho would never play, but he’s representing Italy now and he can’t keep ignoring someone like Jorginho to call someone like [Inter Milan midfielder Roberto] Gagliardini.”

Due to his being continuously overlooked at national team level, Jorginho remains one of the most underappreciated players in Europe. However, with an opportunity to be his country’s World Cup saviour, his status may soon change.

FROM NAPOLI OUTCAST TO ARSENAL TARGET

Born in Brazil, Jorginho moved to Italy as a boy and began his career at Hellas Verona. After a loan spell in the fourth tier of the Italian game with Sambonifacese, he established himself with his parent club, helping them gain promotion to Serie A.

Alongside iconic centre-forward Luca Toni and energetic winger Juan Iturbe he thrived at the top level, earning a move to Napoli in January 2014. However, he was unable to secure a regular starting berth during his first 18 months at the Stadio San Paolo.

Rafa Benítez tended to opt for the likes of Gökhan Inler, Valon Behrami, Walter Gargano and Dávid Lopez for his two-man central midfield. But when the Spanish manager moved on in 2015 to be replaced by Maurizio Sarri, Jorginho’s circumstances changed drastically.

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Within the space of a few months, he went from squad player to key man. Operating at the base of midfield, he became the team’s conductor. He thanked his new coach for the improvement, saying: “I feel very good with Sarri, he’s a great teacher and I admire his philosophy of the game a lot.”

Playing the deep-lying playmaker role within a 4-3-3, Jorginho’s precise passing and intelligence have been integral to a Napoli side that has challenged Juventus’ supremacy over the last three years. As it stands the Partenopei sit top of Serie A, one point ahead of the reigning champions from Turin and with real hope of a first Scudetto since 1990.

The 25-year-old’s importance to the team is highlighted by the fact that he has averaged far more passes than any of his team-mates; the closest to his 111 per game is Kalidou Koulibaly with 86.5. On top of that Jorginho’s passing accuracy of 92.3 per cent is the second-highest of the regular starters, of whom only Lorenzo Insigne, Faouzi Ghoulam and Marek Hamsik average more key passes.

That form has attracted interest from abroad, with Arsenal heavily linked to the Brazil-born Italy international of late. And, given the Gunners often struggle to build out from the back effectively against clever pressing opponents, rumours of a move for Napoli’s technically gifted and composed midfield dictator make sense.

THE HEIR TO PIRLO’S THRONE

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Earlier this week, Andrea Pirlo retired from football. “Not only [is it that] my adventure in New York comes to an end,” he stated, “but my journey as a football player as well.” The decision led to widespread celebration of his exceptional career, one that was largely spent creating chances for others.

Italy relied on Pirlo at times. What his style lacked in dynamism he more than made up for in control, vision, stamina and consistency. He played through defences and facilitated quality build-up play. There was something symbolic about his retirement coming just as Jorginho was finally given another chance with the Azzurri.

In his first press conference after joining Napoli back in 2014, the playmaker spoke clearly about his style and footballing inspirations. “I’m a very versatile player, I have covered many midfield roles but my favourite one is the centre-midfield. I like to control the ball and analyse the game,” he said. “I have grown up as a player watching many champions like Pirlo and Xavi. I have watched them and tried to learn from how they do things.”

There are, and always have been, similarities between Jorginho and Pirlo. The only obvious difference was that the latter possessed more flair and imagination; the former was, and is, focused entirely on the functional over the spectacular.

Daniele De Rossi has acted as Italy’s primary deep-lying playmaker in recent years, performing the role well as they defeated Belgium and Spain on their way to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 under Antonio Conte. But at 34 years of age, the Roman icon is in the latter stages of his career.

Ventura has yielded to criticism to select Jorginho. In doing so, he may not only have saved his country’s 2018 World Cup qualification bid, but set up the long-term foundations for a post-Pirlo Italy.

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