Since Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea, the club have been synonymous with two identities. The first is money, Abramovich’s purchase representing one of the early big-money football takeovers. The second is defence. Whether it be Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte or Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea have done much of their winning with defence. But that may all be about to change.
When Chelsea, finally, made the decision to move on from Antonio Conte they knew exactly what they wanted. They could see what Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp had done to English Football. So they decided to find the Italian version of those two in Maurizio Sarri.
Maurizio Sarri: Bringing Chelsea Forward
Sarri is a fiery character born of the Bielsa philosophy; frantic high press and quick moving ball possession. It is a very similar footballing philosophy to what Jurgen Klopp has brought to Liverpool. Chelsea’s brass are hoping Sarri can bring football very similar to what Liverpool have received from Klopp.
With the appointment of Sarri, Chelsea will be playing some of the best football the Premier League will see all season, and here’s why. First at Empoli and then at Napoli, Sarri brings a brand of football always aesthetically pleasing, but it is not without its risks. Ask City or Liverpool fans, upon first arrival that high press has some mistakes in it.
Both those mistakes are worth the beauty, the exquisite movement of the ball and players around it. It invigorates fans, especially ones that have seen so much defensive football. And more importantly, it will do wonders for the players. Players like Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata and Cesc Fabregas should look to their Napoli counterparts to truly see the difference.
Revolution in Naples
Sarri at Napoli inherited a team that had just fired Rafa Benitez, a team with a super defensive identity that was less than the sum of its parts. Under Benitez, Gonzalo Higuain had scored 22 and 25 goals in two seasons across all competitions. In his one season under Sarri, he scored 36 goals in the league alone, earning a €90 million move to Juventus.
After Higuain’s departure many expected a drop off from Napoli. Instead, Sarri turned Dries Mertens into a centre-forward and he went out and scored 28 goals in Serie A. Mertens added another 18 league goals this past season, both seasons are far and away the best of his career. If he did that with those two, we can all salivate at the idea of him working with Eden Hazard or Alvaro Morata.
And Marek Hamsik hasn’t been mentioned, arguably the best player for Napoli under Sarri. His role as a late runner into the box/pass master is a perfect example of what Fabregas will look like under Sarri. And with N’Golo Kante and new signing Jorginho in midfield with him Fabregas will have all kinds of freedom of movement.
Jorginho was at Napoli with Sarri, playing as the single pivot in front of the back four. He is a pass master much in the mold of Sergio Busquets. So much so that Manchester City were desperate to sign and subsequently very angry with Napoli that they were unable to sign him. His presence will give Fabregas the freedom to pass with the ball, and Kante the freedom to chase when they need the ball back.
His Biggest Obstacles
But despite the great options for Chelsea going forward, there are a ton of question marks at the back. Their defenders were able to take a certain level of risk these last two seasons because there was an extra man to cover any mistake. The problem now is that in Sarri’s system the defenders are required to take the same level of risk, without that extra man.
So in situations where David Luiz or Gary Cahill or Antonio Rudiger decided to take a risk, they had Cesar Azpilicueta to cover for it. Now with Azpilicueta playing right-back, he won’t be there to cover their mistakes. It’s tough to see any of those names mentioned going mistake free any time soon. They do have Andreas Christensen who is an outstanding ball-playing centre-back and it will be crucial he takes the next step under Sarri.
And then there is the question of the goalkeeper. Thibaut Courtois is still a Chelsea player, for now. Real Madrid has made an offer and Courtois has told Chelsea he wants to leave, but they want to replace him first. They have reportedly found their replacement in Athletic Bilbao and Spain international Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Though expensive, Kepa seems like a great choice on for Chelsea. Sarri’s teams require a goalie that is both a ‘sweeper keeper’ and elegant passer. Kepa does both of these things very well, and at 22-years-old there is plenty of room for him to grow. His adjustment to the Premier League will be crucial to Chelsea’s success this season.
Because this feels like a team that could challenge for a top four spot if they get everything right. Very strong going forward, scoring plenty of goals and dominating possession on most days. But boy if they don’t get every single thing right, they are in trouble. That challenge takes a hit with each mistake.
It feels like a team that will need another season under Sarri to make a true title challenge. They only have a slim chance of reaching the top four. But there will be moments that will make Chelsea fans believe. Whether or not that is enough to keep someone like Eden Hazard around longer, it frankly might not matter. Sarri has proven his system works, all he needs is the time to show it.