When the final whistle blew after Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final win over Real Madrid, Jorginho collapsed to the ground, weeping tears of joy.
Jorginho has become a divisive figure – and often the man blamed when things go wrong.
But in the past three gruelling months, he has started twice against against Real Madrid, and once against Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City and Atletico Madrid. He is yet to taste defeat.
This season, he has covered 114 kilometres in the Champions League – only Phil Foden (122 kms) and Toni Kroos (119 kms) are ahead of him, both having played a game more.
Against Real, Jorginho picked up a yellow card in the 14th minute, but didn’t put a foot wrong against a three-time Champions League-winning midfield in Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro.
It highlighted why a lot of the criticism he receives is unjust.
Occupational hazard of a regista
There is one similarity between a ‘regista’ – as the Italians call this type of midfield player – and God: many people don’t see or think of either until things start to go wrong.
It is unfortunate that one of the hardest roles to master in midfield attracts more criticism than praise, mostly because it is so important and so invisible at the same time.
Like most registas, Jorginho’s intelligence, his gift to be able to read the game, is difficult to do justice to with statistics alone.
A stat that does seem relevant is that he made six interceptions in the second leg, including an absolutely crucial one on Karim Benzema in the 79th minute.
Anticipating the guile and cunning of Kroos, Modric, Eden Hazard and Benzema demands ingenuity – a fact reiterated by N’Golo Kante’s five interceptions in the same game.
But those impressive figures don’t cover half of Jorginho’s strengths.
A regista functions much like a conductor in an orchestra. But just like when a conductor appears to be waving at thin air as those around him create music, Jorginho’s artistry can appear bizarre, sometimes, even mundane to the uninitiated.
However, both the conductor and the regista are vital to the creation of a symphony, which they do by varying tempo, making interpretations and providing a clear vision for others to follow.
It is poetic that Real Madrid offer the best possible parallel to Jorginho’s fortunes at Chelsea.
Shortly after Real sold Claude Makelele to Chelsea in 2003, Florentino Perez told France Football that Makelele “wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten.”
Perez also went on to say that David Beckham’s arrival would compensate for the Frenchman’s departure.
One man who recognised that fatal error was current Real manager Zinedine Zidane. “Why do you need to add a gold layer on a Bentley when you have already lost the engine?” he asked.
Many fans are guilty of appraising Jorginho the same way.
The critique is almost always aimed at his short passing and his lack of speed and physical strength – at things he can’t do rather than what he can.
When players play in ill-suited systems, their weaknesses tend to overshadow their strengths.
Andre Villas-Boas’ short tenure at Chelsea, when he forced John Terry to play in a high line, showed that. It left Terry exposed to pace on the break, and Villas-Boas benched the Chelsea captain, a move that eventually contributed to his sacking.
Who can forget Andrea Pirlo, one of the greatest registas to play the game, being turned inside out by a young Oscar before the Brazilian curled a screamer past Buffon in a Champions League tie against Juventus in 2012?
Pirlo’s brilliance on the ball was an undeniable asset, but he also needed Gennaro Gattuso at AC Milan and Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba to help support him when he was most vulnerable.
In Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard’s 4-3-3 high-pressing systems, Chelsea were often left susceptible to counters, exposing all of Jorginho’s weaknesses. Tuchel recognised that a change in system was needed to bring out the best in the Italian maestro, and promptly a switch to the back three was made.
Not only do Chelsea look stronger defensively now, but Tuchel encourages the central stopper (Thiago Silva/Andreas Christensen) to regularly step into midfield to anticipate danger, which gives Jorginho much needed defensive reassurance, especially on the break.
The benefits of Tuchel’s system
While the change of system has helped, Jorginho’s stats reveal a change in his style of play.
The standout stat is that he is making 2.42 interceptions per league game this season, almost twice as many as his first season (1.23) and much higher than last season (1.59).
Of all the players in the league to have played more than 1000 minutes this season, this number puts him second, behind Kante.
Jorginho has also stepped off pressing high in Tuchel’s system, allowing the industrious front trio from Mason Mount, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic or Hakim Ziyech to press high instead.
Jorginho is now recording the lowest pressures and tackles in the attacking third during his three seasons at Chelsea (2.22 and 0.31) while recording his highest pressures and tackles in the defensive third (7.99 and 1.19.)
With a system that suits him, Jorginho is now under far less pressure than he before, which is reflected by his disciplinary record. In his first season, he had eight yellow cards; in his second he had 10. This season he has one.
Interestingly, he has also won 48% of his aerial duels, a vast improvement on his 26% last season.
During Tuchel’s 20 games in charge, Jorginho has started 19, of which the Blues have lost only two; one being a game where they played with a man less for an hour.
It is clear that Tuchel has unwavering faith in his vice-captain’s pedigree, which has brought the best out of both, the individual and collective.
For all the punishment it has endured, Chelsea’s engine has carried it to within a hop, skip and a jump of another unprecedented Champions League title.
Chelsea’s much-maligned, Marmite midfielder Jorginho has undoubtedly played a major role in that.