Despite Maurizio Sarri’s unbeaten start as Chelsea boss, he continues to play down the hype, insisting his new team aren’t ready to win a league and that there is another level of performance they still need to get to. Even with his eagerness to dampen any reports of a title challenge, Chelsea seem to be performing more consistently in recent weeks. Is this a sign of Chelsea starting to hit first gear?
Chelsea Starting to Hit First Gear
No Hazard, No Problem
Many put Chelsea’s potential success this season down to one man; Eden Hazard. It’s understandable but Chelsea started the season without their main man, with fleeting appearances coming from the bench being the most we saw of the Belgian before the first international break. However, throughout September, he took his performances to new heights, winning Chelsea games single-handedly. Are the Blues just a one man team? Can they survive when Hazard is injured?
Yes, they can. Chelsea have more than enough strength in depth to cover the void. Although they will miss his ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck, something he so often does when needed, Chelsea have replacements. They have a squad.
Ross Barkley’s recent goalscoring form is something Sarri will hope Mateo Kovacic can emulate. The need for goals from midfield is vital. Jorginho and N’Golo Kante can be dangerous but who will put the ball in the net? That is why the third midfielder in this system, especially without Hazard, is so important. Willian has a poor scoring record and Pedro is struggling through injury. Chelsea lack an out-and-out goalscorer up front. Ross Barkley’s new found finishing is timely to try to spread out the goals through the team and reduce the pressure on Eden Hazard.
However, even outcast Alvaro Morata has put on his scoring boots, with the Spaniard netting four times in four games. Chelsea will miss Hazard when he doesn’t play, but that might just be the watching fans. People who want to see him play may be disappointed but Chelsea can win without him.
Sarri has been stone-faced in interviews so far, not allowing anyone to get carried away with title fever. His dry humour is infectious but the seriousness in how he presents himself is evident and will transfer across to the team.
Nobody can understate the impact that Jorginho’s arrival has had on the smoothness of Sarri’s ideology but he has also gotten a team that has been built by defensive-minded managers in the last four seasons to be an exciting attacking force, scoring four in two consecutive games, and thirteen in their last four matches. They are flowing.
The style is being inducted into the squad now, though. Not just the starting eleven and common subs but also fringe players such as Cesc Fabregas and Ruben Loftus-Cheek can walk into the team and make an impact. Sarri has transformed a football club – his players all know their role and look very comfortable in the system.
It is this flexibility within the team that allows Sarri to rotate. Using all competitions and a busy schedule that will get tougher as the season goes on and Chelsea seek to be in the business end of all tournaments. Players also now have an example of how secondary cups can get them into the first team. Ross Barkley, now starting and playing week-in-week-out, had to earn his place via Carabao Cup and Europa League opportunities.
With the rotation Chelsea can now afford due to a run of easier games and entering the festive timetable, youth may finally be given a chance. As Chelsea sit pretty in the league, looking very comfortable in Europe, Callum Hudson-Odoi (and Ethan Ampadu when back from injury) may be licking their lips at first-team chances.
The latter stages of the Carabao Cup provide competitive matches for youth players to prove a point and get their name on Sarri’s radar. With a large squad and significantly more experienced fringe players in the team, minutes for these two will be limited, so any time on the pitch must be taken advantage of.
With both of them also prospering at international level (especially Ampadu now being a regular starter at centre-back for Wales), a good attitude on the training ground is imperative to being handed opportunities.
Meanwhile, Reece James at Blackburn, Mason Mount of Derby and Jay Da Silva at Bristol City are all making waves of noise which will help their first-team prospects over the next few years. If one of Chelsea’s current batch, Ross Barkley, a potential return of Nathan Ake or Thorgan Hazard can make it in the Cobham set up, Chelsea and Sarri could be in a position to set up a long and successful route for youth players.
If Chelsea are to mount a serious challenge to Manchester City or to win any trophy this season (which could spark a threatening revolution under Sarri), then this mid-season purple patch will be a starting point.
Unbeaten in all competitions and third in the league, they look a force to be reckoned with. But how will they react to setbacks that a long season brings? And how will Sarri integrate youth in a team of winning heads while continuing to buy develop the team to become his own?
Only time will tell.