There’s no way to hide it; Italy’s qualification campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been a disaster. Boss Gian Piero Ventura has made serious errors in judgement, from playing a 4-2-4 formation against a Spain side who would eventually top their group to the continued selection of various players; his decisions have been widely criticised.
As his team lost 3-0 to La Furia Roja, the former Torino coach was not surprised by the reaction to his choice. "I realised yesterday that I'd get criticised whatever I did,” Ventura said at his post-match press conference. “People were saying I'd play 3-5-2 and blasting me for not using [Lorenzo] Insigne. I realised then there is absolutely no balance in the feedback you get from social media."
Yet while it is undeniable that the decision to field a two-man midfield against Spain’s slick passing and constant motion deserved the condemnation it received, it is arguably not Ventura’s biggest error.
For at least the last 18 months and perhaps even longer than that, Jorginho has been the most effective and outstanding midfielder eligible for the Italian national team but not been asked to play a single minute.
Despite being the heart of Napoli’s high-octane side, the 25-year-old has been amassing both eye-popping statistics and admirers with equal aplomb, yet he remained a glaring omission from Ventura’s squads.
He joined the Partenopei in January 2014 but struggled in his first year with the club, only to blossom when Maurizio Sarri replaced Rafael Benitez as coach. In 2015/16, Jorginho completed 3,590 passes per WhoScored.com, over 500 more than any other player in Serie A.
In the following campaign, he averaged 110.9 passes per 90 minutes, per the same source, a mark that stood a staggering 19.9 higher than any other player in the division, and this term the gap already stands at 17.6.
But make no mistake, this is not passing for the sake of passing. With Jorginho, no ball is wasted, and each is played with the objective of pushing his team forward towards the opposition goal.
It is no coincidence that Napoli have found the back of the net 206 times since the start of the 2015/16 campaign until today, their total more than closest rivals Juventus (187) or AS Roma (194) have mustered over that same period.
It all starts with Jorginho. “My job is to bring balance to the team,” he told Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli back in April (h/t Napoli Football). “I try to do it to the best of my ability. Everyone has a very specific role.”
That is the aim of the meticulous Sarri, who admitted last year he had been impressed by the work his midfielder had done to help the side. “He has improved so much in terms of character,” Sarri told Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia) after a win over Palermo. “Tonight he had 167 touches. I’ve seen pages and pages of praise written for players who had 70 less per game.”
As the graphic in the tweet above highlights, that was the second-highest number of touches by any player in Italy over the last decade, with Jorginho remarkably holding all six of the best performances fitting that criteria.
It is clear from his demolition of the Serie A record books that every Napoli attack flows through him, that he is the source of their free-flowing, one-touch approach. If Xavi and Andres Iniesta personify Pep Guardiola’s “tiki-taka” style at Barcelona, Jorginho stands alone as the embodiment of “Sarri Football” at the Stadio San Paolo.
Opposition players and managers have noticed. “He always plays tight, with one-metre passes, and he is difficult to catch up with and disrupt,” Radja Nainggolan said as he named Jorginho his most difficult opponent in an interview with Roma’s official website over the summer.
“You get tired because he always moves the ball around quickly, without moving around himself,” the Belgium international added. “It’s not that I was in big difficulty against him, but you have to use a lot of energy to keep up with the ball and disrupt what he is trying to do. It can be really difficult sometimes."
“I’m surprised, like many others, that Jorginho hasn’t been called up sooner by Ventura,” BT Sport commentator Adam Summerton told Bleacher Report as he reflected on the midfielder’s continued Italy omission. “He has become a vital cog in a Napoli side playing some of the best football in Europe, a player who so rarely gives the ball away, despite making far more passes per game than most. “
“In a team with so much verve and flair he provides far less unheralded but equally important qualities which help give balance to the Napoli side,” Summerton continued. “Calmness, authority and composure all come to mind. Importantly for any player in his position, Jorginho also reads the game well and has good positional sense.”
Yet Ventura has been almost comical in insisting his side had no space for such a player. “I am surprised that everyone is so amazed by this, because we don’t play with a methodical midfield,” he said when quizzed about Jorginho’s absence by Il Mattino (h/t Football Italia) just last month. “He is the best in that role, but in my Nazionale, currently such a role does not exist. I can’t call him up if he there’s no room for him to play.”
Even Ventura’s own former assistant was bemused by that, Carlo Tebi telling Radio Punto Zero (h/t Football Italia) a few days later that it was “unthinkable to leave such a strong midfielder at home.”
But now, only a month removed from those comments, the Italy boss was finally forced to backpedal, including the Napoli man in his squad for the playoff clashes with Sweden. His sudden change of heart would come just as Italy’s World Cup qualification and his own job as coach were under threat.
“I called up Jorginho because he’s doing well,” Ventura told a press conference earlier this week, something everyone else had noticed over a year earlier but which left supporters feeling hopeful their man would, at last, have the opportunity to shine.
“Whether it was for political reasons or just general tactical stubbornness, the fact that Ventura is only now calling up a midfielder consistently rated as one of the best distributors in Europe is mind-boggling,” Phil, the President of Napoli Club Philadelphia told Bleacher Report. “I’m just relieved, as both a Napoli and Italy fan, that Jorginho finally received the call he unquestionably deserves.”
Saying his inclusion is long overdue would be as understated as the player’s own rise to stardom. Never one to pout or complain, Jorginho has patiently waited for his chance to pull on the Azzurri shirt he craved so much for so long, only wanting to play for Italy despite also being eligible to represent Brazil.
Of course, he must now wait to see if he is given any playing time, but the team need a player who can retain possession, find his team-mates and keep the ball moving. Ventura finally realised that Italy need Jorginho, and for his sake, he and Azzurri fans everywhere should hope there’s still time for the Napoli star to make a difference.