Having taken the reigns at Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri had a lot of expectations from the Blues’ fans and Premier League audience alike. The repute of his attacking style of play, or “Sarri-ball” as they call it preceded him well before he arrived in the English capital. We’ve all had a taste of what Sarri-ball is and how it has been adapted by the Italian for the English game, now that winter has come.
The Italian had a hearty welcome to Stamford Bridge, having to take over from the tumultuous tail end of fellow countryman, Antonio Conte’s spell at Stamford Bridge. Conte couldn’t save his job even though he had won 2 trophies in as many years for the Blues. He took the league by storm by winning the title in his first season at the club, utilizing the attacking 3-4-3 formation to full effect. This system allowed the wing-backs more freedom to go up the flanks to support the attack with the three centre-backs providing solidity at the back and the invaluable N’Golo Kante to deal with the counter.
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At the end of that fairy-tale season, the former Juventus boss had started to lose his dressing room, side-lined a couple of players, and called out the board in his press conferences for their lack of ambition in the transfer market. His second season ended with the Blues finishing outside the Top 4, with a couple of dismal performances towards the fag end of the season.
The banker rolls into town
The Board and the fans were clearly upset, but the fans weren’t ready to give up on “King Conte” yet. Given the history that Chelsea shares with its managers, it was surprising that Conte was set to train with the squad for the Pre-season friendlies Down Under. Two days after Pre-season training started, Sarri arrived at the Bridge, bringing along with him his prized possession from Napoli in Jorginho Frello. The arrival of the Italian midfielder marked the first transfer of the window.
Sarri enforced a 4-3-3 formation, but instead of the usual setup which involves one pivot, a central midfielder and an attacking midfielder that can operate in the hole behind the striker, he opted for an anchor at the base of midfield with two attack-minded midfielders. Having brought in his midfield conductor along with him, Jorginho was a favourite for the defensive midfield spot, displacing the likes of Kante and even the seasoned Cesc Fabregas.
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His system revolved around the Brazilian-born midfielder in Napoli and their brilliant relationship was key to his decision of choosing Chelsea over a chance to play under Pep Guardiola. Although Chelsea were well-equipped in the midfield area with the likes of Fabregas, Kante, Drinkwater, van Ginkel and Barkley, the departure of Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid brought in the mighty Mateo Kovacic on loan. After having played for the Three Lions in the World Cup, Ruben Loftus-Cheek refused a loan deal away from the Blues and decided to fight for his spot in Sarri’s midfield.
The curtain raiser
A loss in the ex-Empoli tactician’s first game against defending champions, Manchester City in the FA Community Shield was a reality check on a totally experimental tactic applied to a defensive-minded team like Chelsea. He clearly needed more time with the squad to inculcate his tactics into the team. Sarri’s team selection was also placed under scrutiny as he handed youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi his first start, in the absence of Eden Hazard. With Fabregas and Marco van Ginkel ruled out due to injuries, and Drinkwater not fitting into Sarri’s tactics & style of play, his midfield selection for the opening weekend was pretty easy.
Five on the bounce!
For Sarri’s debut game against Huddersfield, he went with Jorginho as the deepest midfielder with Barkley and Kante playing as the attacking midfielders. Many were skeptical of Sarri’s decision to move Kante from a position that he has made his own for the past few seasons and deploying him in a more attacking role. Kante promptly replied to Sarri’s critics by scoring the first goal of the campaign for the Blues and Jorginho doubled the lead by half-time.
The game ended 3-0 in favour of the Blues and all the fans were thrilled to have witnessed a new style of play, an attacking form of possession-based football, something that the Chelsea fans weren’t used to seeing under pragmatic coaches such as Mourinho and Conte. After accumulating 68% possession and Jorginho claiming 100+ passes in 90 minutes, everyone knew that the 27-year old has a major role to play in the team.
Sarri was put to the test the very next week with his first London derby against a new-look Arsenal side who were looking to redeem themselves after losing their first game against Manchester City. With all due respect to Huddersfield, a team like Chelsea would be expected to dominate 68% of the possession and rack up 3 goals against them. But the Blues maintained 63% possession and scored the same goals against the Gunners as well. Mourinho and Conte always paid due respect to the top 6 and played a defensive team to attack only on the counter.
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The Blues faithful were used to a cautious approach and as a result, the fact that Sarri threw caution to the wind with such a forward-thinking philosophy was a breath of fresh air for the fans. He had brought in a certain style and elegance to a team who were quite used to winning by the odd goal, however scrappy it may have been. This was a new and refreshed Chelsea side who charged and found a third goal, whereas the old Chelsea would’ve been happy with the draw.
However, it was not all rosy for Chelsea as Sarri had witnessed his side surrendering a two-goal cushion and a highly brittle defensive showing in the first 45.
After a string of 5 wins out of 5 in the Premier League, Chelsea faced a new challenge in the form of the Europa League. Now, having more players in his team available for selection, he handed starts to Zappacosta, Christensen, and Barkley, who was an understudy to the high-flying Kovacic. Barkley had a great game and grabbed an assist in the game against PAOK, suggesting to Sarri to reconsider his options for the game against West Ham in a couple of days.
First signs of cracks
Chelsea went into this game with Hazard dominating the goalscoring and assist charts. This game was the first bump that Chelsea faced this season. West Ham held their line and frustrated the Blues in what was an amazing performance from veteran Lukasz Fabianski. The Blues weren’t able to score with almost 72% of the ball and close to 3 times the number of passes than that of West Ham. This exposed Chelsea’s inability to finish in the final third.
Not willing to repeat the same mistake, Sarri opted to rotate his squad for the next Europa League game, with a total of 7 changes from the team that played Liverpool the week before. Sarri handed starts to Emerson, Fabregas, Loftus-Cheek, and Cahill, who captained his first game of the season. Having started both Loftus-Cheek and Kovacic mid-week, Sarri started Barkley alongside Kante and Jorginho in the game against Southampton, where he scored and assisted Eden Hazard.
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Barkley went on to become a fan favourite the following week after scoring the equaliser against Manchester United with literally the last touch of the contest. Ruben Loftus-Cheek went on to score a hat-trick in the Europa League game against BATE. The England international was brought on from the bench the following weekend against Burnley to replace an injured Pedro and went on to score in that game as well with Barkley scoring and getting 2 assists in the same game. After converting Cesc into a Jorginho-esque player, and opening a new door to Loftus-Cheek towards the wing, Sarri was back to choosing between Kovacic and Barkley for the midfield spot.
Chelsea were kept at bay by a resilient Everton defence. The Merseyside Blues showed Sarri the shortcomings of the passing game. The general run of play, as we have witnessed so far always progressed as below, Defence – Jorginho – Midfield/Full-Backs – Wingers – Striker. The ball is rarely netted in by the strikers with both Morata and Giroud only scoring a combined tally of 14 goals in 42 appearances. The attacking duo of Richarlison and Sigurdsson blocked the passing path to Jorginho from the defence.
London blues in November followed by a poor showing at the Molineux Stadium
Chelsea were caught in a fix. Everton clearly showed the world that if they block the passing lanes to Jorginho, there is a serious lack of progression of play in Chelsea’s game. The defence found it very difficult to bypass Jorginho as they weren’t trained to do so. Sarri was forced to replace Jorginho, as his position was compromised and brought on Fabregas who tried to collect and feed the ball aerially. The points were split much to the frustration of the Sarri who was given a new problem to deal with along with his existing problems in the final third.
Chelsea were humbled due to the very same reason in the next game against London rivals, Tottenham. Alli and Son blocked the path to Jorginho, Kane’s 30-yard curler made Luiz dodge the ball, and Son was just too fast for Jorginho. Sarri’s side were well and truly humbled.
Chelsea’s midfield gem turned out to become their liability. Sarri had to find a way out of this as his system cannot be played without Jorginho and nobody in the team is technically sound to replace him. So Sarri started to train on something that they had not till then. The defenders started to bypass Jorginho with aerial balls to the wings or passing over to the full backs. When something has been planned and it doesn’t work anymore, people tend to go back to square one, and that’s exactly what everyone else did. Once Jorginho was bypassed, they were short-staffed at the back as they had already committed two players on covering Jorginho. Hence with that backup plan, Jorginho was given his freedom again.
But Sarri was given another problem at the Molineux Stadium as Wolves came back from behind to win the game 2-1. Chelsea went into halftime with the lead but started to ease off slightly and were deservedly punished. A complacent mentality has been a feature of Chelsea sides in the recent past.
Smash & grab win over the Champions & good run in the Carabao Cup & Europa League maintained
Sarri has to do something about the mentality of the players if he had plans of playing in Europe the following campaign. Chelsea were hoping to bounce back the very next game and were dubbed as the underdogs against Pep Guardiola’s trailblazers. Sarri went with Kovacic for this game and chose to field Hazard as a false-9, with Willian and Pedro on either flank. This proposed a defensive approach to the game, similar to that of his predecessor Conte. Chelsea were dominated by a clearly superior Man City until Luiz produced a pinpoint pass to Pedro who produced a brilliant switch of play to Hazard who put it across goal where N’Golo Kante rocketed the ball in the roof of the net.
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It was Chelsea’s first shot on target and this was their longest wait for an attempt at Stamford Bridge since the 2006/07 season, reflecting just how much on the back foot they had been. Luiz headed home from a Hazard corner to seal the victory and send the Blues faithful into ruptures as the defending champions had been grappled to perfection in a lionhearted second-half defensive display. “Manchester City fell to the tactics of Sarri” was the talk of the town, sending the fans and players into cloud-nine.
Then again Chelsea took their feet off the pedal and the resultant was a poor 2-2 draw against Vidi in the Europa League.
Shocked at the Bridge by Vardy followed by a good hard fought victory against Watford
Chelsea advanced to the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup after Hazard scored the lone goal to send Bournemouth packing. Having drawn Tottenham in the semi-finals, Chelsea have a chance at redemption for the humbling at Wembley in November. Leicester visited the Bridge, in what was supposed to be an easy win, but it was the Foxes who took the win. Chelsea had been dominant before the break, but they had no reply to Vardy’s strike in the 65th min. Sarri told the press that Chelsea were a little shocked to have conceded, and rightly so, but reacted with a bit of mental confusion. He confirmed that he would have talks with a number of his players.
Chelsea then traveled to Vicarage Road on boxing day, to face Watford, who were looking to pull off an upset as they did against fellow Londoners Tottenham Hotspurs earlier this season. Sarri opted to play the same starting XI that faced Leicester, with Hazard in a false-9 role. Chelsea hogged the possession for the majority of the first 45 minutes, breaking into counter attacks from time to time, but lacked finishing in the final third.
Chelsea made progress when Watford committed too many men forward and caught them on the break. Kovacic found Hazard who found the net in the dying minutes of the first half. Action ensued when Watford leveled with a well-rehearsed set play, in first-half stoppage time. Chelsea finally regained the lead via a spot kick, when Hazard was fouled by Ben Foster. The game ended 2-1 in favour of the Blues, but it wasn’t a convincing win as such.
Important transfer window ahead
A couple of names come to mind, but Sarri needs to bolster his squad come the winter transfer window, rather than look to working on the same squad. Talks of a potential Higuaín-Morata swap are on the table with the Argentine keen to work with Sarri. With Morata failing to repay the manager’s initial faith and Giroud simply not living up the standards of a world-class striker, serious reinforcements are needed if Chelsea want to challenge the likes of Liverpool and City. Pundits have pointed out the below-par performances of the Chelsea wingers, especially Willian’s imprudent decision making in the final third.
Wingers have to be the main focus in the window, but it is also imperative for the defence to be strengthened. With Fabregas and Luiz’s contracts running out at the end of the season, Kovacic on loan, Cahill looking to depart, Christensen not being “tactical” enough, all aspects of the team need to be looked at but ideally, acquiring a couple of players should be on the agenda to bolster the squad.
With a potential transfer ban looming over their heads, Chelsea look to go all-out this January and rightly so if they dream of being in the title race, whether that is in the current campaign or in the following one.
Son image via Football365
Kepa image via Getty Images
Higuain and Morata image via AS English – Diario AS