Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
A little over six years ago, Chelsea’s André Villas-Boas experiment ended in tears. Seduced by Pep Guardiola’s tiki taka, Roman Abramovich had replaced the dependable Carlo Ancelotti with one of the Catalan’s young imitators. But Villas-Boas’s high-pressing game proved anathema to a squad long accustomed to defending in their own half. And player power unseated the then-34-year-old after only 27 league games, seven of which ended in defeat. The nadir, a 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal, saw centre-backs John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic brutally exposed to Arsene Wenger’s pacey front three.
Fingers well burned, Abramovich quickly returned to the bosom of reactive football through the successive appointments of Rafael Benitez, José Mourinho, and Antonío Conte. The Russian oligarch seemed to recognise, once and for all, that results come before aesthetics in the football business. Until now that is, and the surprising anointment of Napoli’s Maurizo Sarri as the man to finally bring both to Stamford Bridge.
Sarrismo, Italy’s high-octane tiki-taka equivalent, has certainly thrilled football lovers in the ex-banker’s native land — and beyond. After watching Manchester City narrowly survive Napoli’s onslaught at the Etihad last November, Guardiola remarked that Sarri’s side were “one of the best teams I’ve faced in my career. Maybe the best.”
Upon taking over a Benítez side that finished fifth in 2015, Sarri engineered finishes of second, third, and second in his three seasons at the Naples outfit. Most impressively, despite operating an aggressively high defensive line, Napoli conceded only 29 goals last season. By way of comparison, Benítez’s side leaked 54 in his final campaign.
But it’s difficult to avoid one indisputable fact about Sarri: the not entirely trifling matter of his empty trophy cabinet. Unfortunate to thrice lose out to Juventus in Serie A, Sarri nonetheless must take some flak for failing to return silverware of any stripe. Unwillingness to rotate away from his strongest eleven rendered cup success almost impossible. And Sarri’s reluctance to deviate from his preferred high-pressing 4-3-3 system may have also partly proved his undoing.
Former admirer, Napoli chairman Aurelio de Laurentiis, touched on both of these points recently in a typically frank interview. Having previously declared Sarri a “genius”, de Laurentiis retracted that praise, instead dubbing the 59-year-old a “one-dimensional coach” who “only knows how to play one way.” The outspoken owner also cast aspersions on the idea of winning anything with only “11 to 13 starters.”
De Laurentiis also expressed interest in how Sarri would fare in England, operating under his usual self-imposed constraints. And in that regard much will depend on how quickly the current Chelsea squad adapts to their new boss’s rather alien demands. Just like Villas-Boas, Sarri is taking control of a group steeped in reactive football. Chelsea’s March defeat at Manchester City, throughout which Conte encouraged his players to evince an extraordinarily passive brand of football would have disgusted Sarri. As Sunday’s Community Shield face-off is bound to show, the Neapolitan would have demanded a diametrically opposite approach to his fellow countryman.
But can that approach work at Chelsea in 2018? Incomings have been few and far between, after all, with only Jorginho and backup goalkeeper Robert Green signing on the dotted line. But the former, a pivotal player in Sarri’s Napoli 4-3-3, may prove crucial to making it work at Chelsea. Reactive football requires a midfielder like N’Golo Kanté to sit deepest, instigating counterattacks by winning the ball. Pressing, however, requires one’s deepest-lying midfielder to be a playmaker, first and foremost. And in Jorginho, the most prolific passer in all five top leagues, Sarri has the man to play the vertical passes he so desires. Guardiola, who coveted the 26-year-old as an upgrade on the ageing Fernandinho, must be fuming.
Silky on the ball, Jorginho’s positional sense off it is almost without parallel, too. Moving from side-to-side along with his attackers, to help recycle possession if necessary, the midfielder instinctively knows where to be. Much like the aforementioned Kanté, who will assume the ball-winning role played by Allan at Napoli — to Jorginho’s immediate right.
Central midfield looks defensively sound, then, with only Marek Hamsik’s advanced, left-of-centre role up for grabs. Cesc Fabregas looks the favourite to secure that berth at this juncture, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley also likely to provide able competition. But what of the defensive line, that so crumbled when last a Chelsea manager ordered it high?
Five to four
Assembled in a back five throughout Conte’s two-year stint, Sarri’s raft of rearguard options will take some time to re-adjust to a four-man defence. Converted winger Victor Moses, a revelation at right-wing-back, is likely to be the big loser, while Marcos Alonso has never looked quite so comfortable when defending in a four. Sarri’s system, in other words, is unlikely to play to their shared strengths.
That means a probable return to right back for the division’s outstanding centre back in recent years, César Azpilicueta. Now 28, the Spaniard may not be as rapid as he once was, but he can expect to play a slightly more reserved role than Alonso in Sarri’s traditionally left-leaning system. Which of Azpilicueta’s erstwhile central defensive colleagues will get the nod in the middle, however, is anyone’s guess.
The rumoured pursuit of Juventus’ Daniele Rugani is quite odd, in that regard. An excellent natural defender, Rugani would probably list mobility as his most obvious weak-point. And mobility is precisely what Sarri’s plethora of defensive options collectively lack; that and quality on the ball.
A high-press requires both, and at least David Luiz very much possesses the latter. The Brazilian should return from the cold to become a regular starter again, but who will be his partner? Antonio Rudiger appears more athletic than his competitors and therefore might get the nod; his set-piece goal in the recent friendly defeat to Arsenal will do him no harm either. Both Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma are poor in possession, the latter especially so. Club captain Gary Cahill is too, and at 32 no longer has the pace that saw Villas-Boas bring him to the club in 2012. The Portuguese started his ill-fated campaign with Ivanovic and Terry in harness and finished with Cahill and Luiz. Neither of the latter pair could prevent defeats to Everton and West Brom and Villas-Boas’s ultimate sacking. Sarri may eventually feel he cannot rely on them either.
Behind any effective high line lies an excellent sweeper-keeper, a label with which Thibaut Courtois is not readily associated. The Belgian is neither particularly quick off his line nor good on the ball, which may be why Sarri appears somewhat agnostic about the prospect of his imminent departure. As an Arrigo Sacchi apostle, Sarri believes in using his stopper as an insurance policy against a malfunctioning offside trap. Sacchi’s immediate successor at AC Milan, Fabio Capello, showed inexplicable faith in the erratic Sebastiano Rossi; the lanky goalkeeper’s pace covered a multitude. And at Napoli, a 35-year-old Pepe Reina offered Sarri both reliable distribution and speed off the goal-line. Willy Caballero, if required, represents a poor substitute.
Where Courtois goes Hazard may follow, however, and that should really worry Sarri who loves to build up play on the left-flank. Hazard represents an upgrade on Lorenzo Insigne, Sarri’s inside-left at Napoli, and if he departs there is no obvious replacement. Callum Hudson-Odoi boasts great potential at 17, as he showed up against Hector Bellerin in Dublin, but the teenager is not yet ready for such a pivotal role. 25-year-old Bernard, a reputed target from Shakhtar Donesk, would be a far safer bet.
Pedro, meanwhile, is a perfect fit for José Callejón’s roaming wide-poacher role. The 31-year-old, who inked a new one-year deal in recent days, will use his boundless footballing intelligence to benefit richly from Sarri’s left-wing buildup. His job, along with the number nine of the day, will be to simply run in behind and snaffle through-balls from the likes of Hazard and Fabregas. Pedro’s greatest competition Willian, a less prolific goalscorer, may yet be allowed to leave.
The number nine position, arguably, represents Sarri’s most glaring outstanding problem. Alvaro Morata, a busted flush since Christmas, missed four big chances (including a penalty) against Arsenal this week and his confidence looks completely shot. The Spaniard’s struggles raise the possibility of Hazard leading the line against Manchester City again on Sunday — as he did throughout the aforementioned March stinker — with Hudson-Odoi employed on the left. Michy Batshuayi is likely to depart on loan, while Oliver Giroud is also edging towards the exit door. Sarri’s desired reunion with Gonzalo Higuain ran aground; the Chelsea powers-that-be did not share their new manager’s enthusiasm for the Argentinian marksman.
One thing’s for sure: Sarri’s chosen forwards, whoever they may be, will almost certainly spearhead the press better than those once at Villas-Boas’s disposal. On that fateful October day in 2011 when Arsenal came to town, the Portuguese’s 4-3-3 was fronted by Daniel Sturridge, Juan Mata, and Fernando Torres. That the Gunners played through the press and pierced Chelsea’s high line to score five goals should therefore come as no surprise. Villas-Boas was gone the following March. Sarri, surely, will not suffer a similar fate.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112