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Chelsea Football Club and the Anatomy of a Chain-Smoking Tuscan

Andy Mukolo
ANALYST
Feature
1.83K   //    28 Aug 2018, 11:47 IST

Newcastle United v Chelsea FC - Premier League
Maurizio Sarri's rise to the top has been unconventional

The Inception

In 2003, Roman Abramovich started sowing seeds for one of the most captivating transition stories in English football –Stupendous wealth, shrewd recruitment, outrageous-largesse-name-your-price-money –and astronomical ambition surpassed only by the will to dominate and rewrite history.

Meanwhile, there was a certain Mr Sarri cutting his teeth in the Tuscany regional leagues. Doubling as a bank clerk and a student of economics, the football-obsessed Italian used his spare time for coaching, but it was only after winning promotion with sixth-tier Sansovino in the early 2000s, that Sarrismo really took flight.

While the Roman revolution kicked into full gear and changed the face of Premier League football forever, Sarri rose through the lower levels of Calcio, and although he’s not necessarily cut from the kind of serial-winning material Chelsea always crave, the 59-year-old has evolved into the most coveted tactician in Italian football, and yes, his portfolio speaks for itself.

Unlike Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, or Rafa Benitez, who had varying spells in England, Madrid and Italy, Maurizio Sarri’s only top-level experience came during his Napoli years, but as his Chelsea reign unfolds, the former banker can draw inspiration from the good fortunes of Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo, and Antonio Conte, Compatriots and fellow countrymen who left big footprints on the sands of the bridge.

During the Roman revolution, Champions League football has become a constant, and although the Blues have found themselves in Europe’s second competition just twice (2012 and 2018) in over a decade, the West-London club has had managers with the tactical-expertise suited to the task at hand.

In the eye of the storm, Rafa Benitez replaced Roberto Di Matteo, and while the Italian sought redemption elsewhere, the former Liverpool manager made history in Amsterdam, leading the blues to a 2-1 victory over Benfica in the 2013 Europa League final, and in the eleven days that followed, Chelsea enjoyed possession of both the Champions League and Europa League trophies.

It was fun while it lasted, ask any Chelsea fan.

Napoli and The Transfiguration

Ironically, in one of Napoli’s most inspiring league campaigns since the days of Diego Armando Maradona and Gianfranco Zola, Maurizio Sarri prioritized the Scudetto over Europe’s second-tier competition, and although the Partenopei came agonizingly close to unseating the Juventus in an intriguing Scudetto race, nightmares of bowing to tactically inferior (RB Leipzig) in Europa league round of 32 still haunts the Napoli faithful.

Nevertheless, Bar Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, it’s hard to imagine a team that played more hypnotizing football than Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli en route Russia 2018. 

With Salah, Firmino and Mane, Liverpool were phenomenal, Barcelona was Barcelona and Real Madrid continued to toy with Europe, but the flair, freedom and chemistry with which Sarri’s men played made the little donkeys arguably the most loved Italian team last season.

Forming the spine of a ruthless Napoli army, Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, Jorginho, Allan, Hamsik and Koulibaly became Sarri's most trusted generals, and although only one of them now trains with him at Cobham, the Italian tactician is already assembling a group potentially more hypnotizing than his Neapolitan masterpiece.

The former Empoli manager is in a league of his own and now sits on the left-hand side of Guardiola in the hallowed chambers of tactically offensive tacticians, but Maurizio Sarri knows too well the dangers of getting carried away in the wind of expectations.

“On the results, maybe the performances in the first part of the season will not be in line with the potential of the squad

“Maybe, in the first part

“I think you have to wait for a couple of months, you have to wait

”If we are able to play at another speed, maybe scoring will not be a problem for us

“But at this moment, at this current speed, it may be a problem,” Sarri said upon resumption of duties at Cobham.

In the Middle of The Park

The fascinating trio of Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic/Fabregas looks very complimentary on paper, each possessing a defined skillset capable of upholding the tenets of Sarriball: The interception of the Frenchman, the mesmerizing vision of Jorginho and Fabregas, and then there’s Kovacic, whose defensive aggressiveness and dribbling skills complete the triangle of what should be a well-oiled midfield machine.

Two of Chelsea’s first goals under the Neapolitan came from the unlikeliest of sources; Kante and Jorginho –while the Italian midfielder has developed into a living embodiment of Sarrismo, it is the chemistry in the middle of the park that ultimately determines just how well Sarri’s ideas will be transformed from paper to silverware.

Three goals, three points and a clean sheet on Matchday one; very impressive, but on an overwhelming afternoon in West Yorkshire, any group with Chelsea’s quality could have dispatched the Terriers. But then, there’s still room for improvement, and Sarri’s post-match concerns on “moving the ball quicker and pressuring defenders” couldn’t have come any quicker.

How Impregnable is the Wall?

Defensively, the record-breaking arrival of Bilbao-bred Arrizabalaga and the experienced hands of Robert Green more than makes up for Thibaut Courtois’s switch to Madrid, and although not signing new defenders could be down to Maurizio Sarri’s faith in the quartet of Rudiger, David Luiz, Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso fitting perfectly into the defensive plot of his puzzle, the role of Victor Moses, Christensen and Zappacosta as spare-parts could be a reason for concern.

These are not the best in their respective positions, but we’ve seen what Sarri did with Koulibaly and Hysaj, and it will be unnecessarily pessimistic to conclude that he cannot forge another defensive machine with the tools at his disposal.

A clean sheet away to Huddersfield is no way to measure an impregnable defence in a league that’s from a physical point of view, tactically different from Serie A, and only when Chelsea’s back-line is up against unforgiving forwards can we truly measure the strength and elasticity of Sarri’s backbone.

Against Arsenal and at St. James' Park against Rafa Benitez's Newcastle, there were visible cracks in the wall and although Chelsea ran out winners in the end, conceding 3 goals in two games highlights the need for more stable defending as the season progresses.

Going Forward

Following the arrival of Kovacic and Kepa Arrizabalaga, the new Chelsea boss stated that his team was complete and although there are reasonable question marks over who leads the attack under Sarrismo, it will be unfair to rule out the resurgence of Morata and Giroud under Sarri.

Had Gonzalo Higuain picked London over Milan, his former Napoli boss would probably worry less about high conversion rates and consistency in front of goal, but with Leonardo and Gennaro Gattuso having the last laugh on that one, who says Maurizio Sarri cannot adopt the false-nine alternative when the need arises?

The perfection of Lorenzo Insigne’s positional switch following Higuain’s move to Turin provides further proof that the absence of a lethal number nine is probably not a source of worry for Chelsea’s new boss.

Maurizio Sarri doesn’t aim to please, but he strives to entertain and while his tactical thinking dwells upon high pressing, and diabolically passing opponents into submission, his fluid 4-3-3 theory will allow Chelsea’s forwards interchange freely, making it more difficult for opponents to cope in the final third.

With only a couple of minutes under his belt, Eden Hazard has been phenomenal thus far -against Arsenal and Newcastle, the Belgian was completely unplayable and one wonders what will happen when he's fully fit for ninety-minute of football.

Fear and Wonder

During the Roman era, Chelsea has become the most successful club in England, and even if Mr. Sarri’s methods inspired Napoli to three fascinating Calcio campaigns, the Tuscan tactician must know, that at Stamford bridge, trophyless campaigns are not tolerated.

This is London, not Naples.

It is appointed unto a Chelsea manager two seasons to make an impact, maybe three, but after that, comes the sound of the big gavel –Roman Abramovich’s judgment– you have to win or you’re out. 

At Cobham, except you’re winning the Champions league every year (Even the great Zizou had to read the handwriting on the wall at Real Madrid), there’s no such thing as a long-term project.

Much of Sarri’s inability to win silverware with SSC Napoli was probably down to Aurelio De Laurentiis’s failure to grant the Neapolitan’s transfer requests, but at Chelsea, the Italian manager is already enjoying plenty of backing from the powers that be.

The Tuscan has had to wait for his chance at the very top, and although he didn’t rise through managerial academy ranks or serve under an established patron (like Mourinho and Pep under Cruyff), logic suggests, that it is Sarri’s unconventional route –beginning off the well-worn path– that has forged him into arguably the most admired Italian manager in the game.

Like Arrigo Sacchi and Johan Cruyff, Sarri preaches the gospel of playing beautifully –joga Bonito –and whether or not Sarriball will conquer England remains to be seen, but for now, it is up against Klopp’s heavy metal Kop, Jose’s defensively knit devils, Pochettino’s Harry Kane team, and Guardiolismo, Pep Guardiola’s diabolically offensive shark team.

In a league that is fast-paced and more physical than others, a foreigner’s first year is usually considered a transition phase, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from Mourinho, Ancelotti and Conte, it is that you can have an outstanding first year only to crash and burn suddenly. 

At a time when Stamford bridge is in dire need of new directions, and the absence of trophies in Sarri’s portfolio is becoming painfully obvious, the timing of Roman Abramovich’s thirteenth managerial appointment couldn’t have been more spot on.

Someday, Premier league curtains will fall on Sarri’s reign at the bridge, maybe sooner than expected, but for a 59-year-old who dresses like Zuckerberg and smokes like Charles Bukowski, the task of bringing back Chelsea’s glory days remains an exciting challenge.

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Andy Mukolo
ANALYST
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