Maurizio Sarri: Not the happily-ever-after Chelsea expected?
When Chelsea unveiled Maurizio Sarri as their new manager after Antonio Conte, it was a marked change from the kind of managers Chelsea had recruited for the hot seat at Stamford Bridge.
Conte had won virtually every domestic competition with Juventus and reached a Champions League final, Jose Mourinho had won a league title in every country he had managed in plus a couple of Champions League medals and Andre Villas-Boas had won the Portuguese league without losing a game.
Sarri, on the other hand, entered the Serie A with a stint at Empoli, before having his breakthrough at Napoli, who finished the 2017-18 Serie A four points in 2nd place behind champions Juventus. And he had an undying affinity for cigarettes, to the extent that there were rumors of him smoking up to 80 of them in a day.
His arrival at Chelsea was hailed as the entry of a new brand of football, called 'Sarri-ball', and would provide a tough challenge to Pep Guardiola's possession dominated play, or Jurgen Klopp's Gegenpressing game. It did attempt to do that and for the first quarter of the season, Chelsea were the team to watch in the Premier League. Jorginho, who joined Sarri at Chelsea from Napoli, had unbelievable passing numbers during this period, with a passing rate of almost two passes a minute and a 90%+ pass completion percentage.
He established himself as a human metronome with N'Golo Kante and one of Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic ahead of him in his preferred 4-3-3 formation. David Luiz had rediscovered the touch that seemed to have deserted him during Conte's time as manager. Eden Hazard continued exactly where he left off last season. There was a palpable air of expectancy as Chelsea put in clinic after clinic. So how has it all changed since then?
Lack of goalkeeping options
Before the season began, Thibaut Courtois, after a long courtship by Real Madrid, finally joined them prior to the ongoing season. It was a tough blow for Chelsea, especially since Courtois had won the Golden Glove at the 2018 World Cup as Belgium finished 3rd.
It left Chelsea scrambling to find a replacement. Alisson joined Liverpool and Jan Oblak was virtually chained to Atletico Madrid, which meant a big name signing so close to the transfer deadline would be tough.
In came Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao for a massive €80 million, breaking the record fee that Liverpool had paid for Alisson a few weeks prior. It looked like a knee-jerk reaction, compounded by the fact Chelsea had Willy Caballero and later Rob Green as backup goalkeepers.
Playing key players out of position
Since December, Jorginho's performances have lacked the impact that they had had at the start of the season. An over-reliance could be seen, despite him not having the pace and strength like Lucas Torreira for Arsenal, and Nemanja Matic and Fernandinho for the two Manchester clubs.
This issue was even more glaring considering Kante had done the same deep-lying midfielder role for Conte during the previous campaign, intercepting and protecting the ball brilliantly and seemingly at will. Kante is now tasked with playing that Allan did at Napoli, as can be seen below, which puts Kante out of position. The blame cannot be put squarely on Jorginho though, but over the course of 24 league matches so far, some changes were expected.
For all the mesmeric attacking patterns that Sarri-ball creates, it is susceptible to quick counter-attacks. This is due to the high defensive line coupled with the involvement of the back 4 in attacking moves, with David Luiz and Marcos Alonso pushing forward and Jorginho staying back, as can be seen above.
Another issue has been fatigue, with Sarri's players struggling to keep up with the high-intensity style of play through the season, which was seen during his time at Napoli. While they led Serie A on numerous occasions during the season, teams with much deeper and settled squads pushed ahead, as Juventus did in Serie A, and this season, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham have come up.
While this is Sarri's first season outside Italy, this aspect is something that would have to be addressed first as it would involve a change or rotation in squad members as well as a deviation in tactics.
At the start of the season Alvaro Morata was expected to lead the line for Chelsea, but 5 goals in 16 appearances was not going to cut it, especially with Mo Salah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Harry Kane thumping in truckloads of goals for their respective teams.
Olivier Giroud was never a genuine goalscoring option, but a play-linking option. Callum Hudson-Odoi, unheralded yet worthy of a 35 million bid from Bayern Munich has also been left largely untested, being reserved for matches against lower-league opponents. This meant that Chelsea found themselves without a striker.
And having spent a large chunk of their transfer reserves on Kepa and with Morata having come in only last season for £60 million, a big name signing would yet again be hard to come by.
They have now gone for Gonzalo Higuain, another trusted Sarri product. But even he hasn't had the best of seasons on loan at AC Milan, having been deemed surplus to requirements at Juventus with the likes Ronaldo, Dybala and Mandzukic ahead of him in the pecking order.
On the whole of it, Maurizio Sarri's attractive and personal brand of football is wonderful to watch, but with Chelsea, who had started the season challenging Manchester City and Liverpool, now finding themselves out of the top 4, Sarri needs to ring in the changes to avoid becoming the latest in a long line of managers walking out the revolving door at Stamford Bridge.