Maurizio Sarri writes really well. He can almost always be seen scribbling away on his pad, writing notes, mostly when he’s not chewing cigarette filters on the touchline. His slanted, well-spaced writing comes from his years of experience working in finance after failing as a professional footballer. He loved art and his medium was the football pitch, always preferring the tracksuit over the tie, and hence at the age of 40, he started to pursue his dream. Never too late? He can testify.
“A tough life is getting up in the morning at six and go to work in a factory, not football.”
As a part-time banker and football manager, Sarri guided Stia, Faellese, Cavriglia and Antella to promotion to the Italian sixth tier in the ’90s. While managing at AC Sansovino, he finally replaced his day job of a banker with football tactics and set out to achieve his dream of managing a top European club. A tactician obsessively devoted to detail, Sarri was known as ‘Mr 33’ because of devising 33 set-piece routines at Sansovino, a testament to his desire to strive towards perfection at the job he so loved.
Sarri had threatened to quit if they failed to win the title in Sansovino that season. He duly delivered and ensured Sansovino got their hands on the trophy. Despite that, he chose to move on to Sangiovannese in the third tier the following season. Achieving promotion in his first season, he got his first Serie B job at Pescara Calcio in 2005. He replaced Antonio Conte (not for the last time) at Arezzo, but couldn’t prevent relegation. His immense tactical ability was portrayed in a 2-2 draw with Juventus in the Coppa Italia, but that clearly wasn’t enough to earn him the big breakthrough job of his career.
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Sarri fleeted in between the second and third tiers of the Italian league until he was offered management by Serie B club Empoli. He paid off the faith shown in him by guiding the club to the top tier: finally making his way up to the Serie A in a span of more than two decades.
Sarri’s brand of football at Empoli attracted a number of plaudits, a high intensity, vertical, passing brand of football which was regarded as one of the very best in Italy. At 53 years of age, the chain-smoking maverick had found his feet in the sport he so loved, as Empoli excelled in the Serie A. Great deeds don’t often go unnoticed in football: as Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis, who was enamoured by Sarri’s philosophy of football, appointed the Neapolitan to replace Rafa Benítez at Napoli, in 2015.
Finally, Sarri had made it through the hardships, the lack of employment and the football tiers. He finally had the job he craved for since he was a boy playing around on the streets of Naples: maybe not with the ball at his feet, but in his mind.
Sarri didn’t win a trophy in his three years at Napoli, instead, he became an advocate of one of the most aesthetically appealing football brands in the world. Sarri played his 4-3-3 consisting of two ball-playing centre-backs, a deep-lying playmaker or the Italian ‘regista’, two central midfielders, two inside forwards who get narrow to give full-backs space to attack, and a centre-forward who’s a fox in the box. He revitalized Gonzalo Higuaín’s career in front of goal, in a season where the Argentinean scored a record 35 league goals in 36 appearances and installed Dries Mertens in his role when the former left for Juventus: similar numbers followed.
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Sarri’s Napoli had concluded the first half of the ’16/17 season in 1st place and had gained the title “Campione d’Inverno” (“Winter Champions”) for the first time in 26 years. This led him to believe he had constructed a side capable of winning the league the following season, where Napoli would only miss out on the league title by 3 points to eventual winners Juventus, even after defeating them 1-0 in the latter stages of the competition.
Replaced by Carlo Ancelotti on charges of not winning any silverware in three years, the next chapter in Sarri’s journey would take him to West London. Chelsea announced the signings of Sarri and his compatriot Jorginho on the same day, and he was burdened with the task of revitalizing an underperforming team with much-missed attacking intent: a volatile squad who needed stabilization over instant success. In his first-ever press conference as Blues manager, Sarri used the word “fun” on numerous occasions, often even going to the extent of prioritising it over results.
Two months into Sarri’s reign at the Bridge, his impact can be seen on all fronts. Along with having fun and enjoying themselves on the pitch, the players are determined to secure all three points every time they walk out that tunnel. Sarri has instilled the out-of-favour David Luiz and Antonio Rüdiger at the heart of the defence as his two ball-playing centre-backs who’re both present in the top five in the Premier League passing charts. He has also transformed Chelsea’s volatile and technically inadequate midfield into a well-oiled passing machine, constantly exchanging possession and feeding balls into the front three.
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New signing Jorginho leads the statistics for most passes in Europe’s top five leagues, loan signing Mateo Kovacić has gelled into the system in no time, and N’Golo Kanté has been given a role much higher up the pitch than he’s used to, winning the ball back in the final third to wreak havoc on careless defences. But the most impactful player in Sarri’s new-look Chelsea so far has been the Belgian World Cup show stopper Eden Hazard, who is presently the top scorer of the Premier League with six goals in seven games.
Both of Chelsea’s strikers have been misfiring and hence the Belgian has taken up the baton, and Sarri has stated on a number of occasions that he wants Hazard to score a whopping 40 goals in a season, a feat which he is capable of achieving given the system Chelsea are operating in currently. Sarri has revitalised forgotten Englishman Ross Barkley who looks a different player now. He has driven out technical mediocrity from his side, and now Chelsea are a team who play direct football, press high and try to double leads instead of holding onto one.
Chelsea sit third on the Premier League table as of now, still unbeaten in all competitions, and although the team still has a few lapses on the defensive front as well as lack of clinical finishing, Sarri is very satisfied with the way his team have gone about until now. Chelsea have a new philosophy instilled in them, a vertical passing brand of eye-catching football with attacking full-backs and a high defensive line. Sarri further stresses the fact that it will take a few more months for the players to get completely used to his system. He believes they are still one season away from challenging for the title, but he’s ready to take on the challenge he’s been given.
As long as the former banker is pacing down the touchline with his half-chewed cigarette filters and his notepad, the players, as well as the Stamford Bridge faithful, will have fun: Chelsea will play just the way he wants them to. Maurizio Sarri has gone from working in a 9-to-5 day job to one which earns him £6m a year, managing an elite European club: and maybe, if everything does indeed go his way, England will be introduced to Sarri-ball sooner than later. It’s never too late to have fun, and he can testify.
Feature Image via Trendsmap