Sarri Ball: The start of something special at Chelsea? 

Maurizio Sarri - Chelsea's head coach
Maurizio Sarri - Chelsea's head coach

Chelsea after a lot of struggle appointed the former Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri. Napoli under Sarri had been a real competition to Juventus in Serie A, considering Juventus' dominance over the league in the past 6 years. His Napoli team played pragmatic football, which was lauded by several managers including Pep Guardiola.

The Italian's tactics at Chelsea seems to have paid off, having a pleasant start in the Premier League. But what is so unique about Sarri and his tactics and how different is he from the past title-winning squads at Chelsea? Let's dig deeper!

Mourinho's specials

Jose Mourinho came to Chelsea after establishing himself as one of the most exciting managers of that era, by winning the Champions League with Porto, defeating AS Monaco. With Roman Abramovich's support, he would build a squad which will go on to make many records in the Premier League.

Mourinho played in a 4-3-3 formation with Petr Cech as the goalkeeper and Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry played as centre-backs. Claude Makelele played as a central defensive midfielder, famously known as the "Anchorman", who would drop in the defensive third to support the centre-backs against opposition's attack and was involved in making crucial tackles and interceptions in the middle of the pitch to regain possession.

The full-backs, Paulo Ferreira and William Gallas or Wayne Bridge were given full freedom to push through the wings and deliver crosses. In the midfield, it was Frank Lampard who was given more attacking freedom to assist and score, whereas Michael Essien or Tiago would play as a box to box midfielder, supporting the attack in the opposition's half.

Further forward, Arjen Robben would play on the right wing, Joe Cole or Damien Duff would play on the left wing, where they would look to cut inside by making runs in the overlap or deliver crosses. And in the middle of the front three was the traditional striker Didier Drogba, who would play as a target man in the opposition's half to create space or attack crosses. He was also assisted by Cech who would often launch long balls, instigating attacks.

Mourinho's 2004/05 team had a counter-attacking mentality where the team focused more on attacking quickly on the break. The team definitely had a higher tempo with the likes of Robben, Cole, Drogba complimenting the same with their pace and the full-backs joining in the attack.

Defensively, Mourinho deployed man-marking tactics, where every player had specific instructions, which is evident from the fact that both the wingers had to track back to press and maintain the defensive formation.

Mourinho's 2004-05 title triumph
Mourinho's 2004-05 title triumph

One of the most successful teams in the Premier League history, this team went to create many records in that season, including most points with 95 (The record which Guardiola's Manchester City broke in 2017/18), the team with least goals conceded in a season with 15 (a record which still stands). Mourinho's special clearly changed the English football by doing away with the traditional 4-4-2 formation.

Ancelotti's diamonds

Chelsea under Carlo Ancelotti started with 4-3-1-2 but later changed it to 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 as the team was more comfortable with those formations, deployed by Mourinho and Guus Hiddink in their time. The main highlight of the Ancelotti's team was the use of diamond in the middle, which was evident from the way the team was set up.

Michael Ballack and Lampard would spearhead the attack along with Deco, who would play at the top of the diamond, with Essien or John Obi Mikel protecting the centre-backs. Upfront, the team would benefit from the strength of Drogba, who with his physical strength, would play as a target man and help the team with the attack.

The responsibility to provide width to the team was with the full-backs, with Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic supporting the team with the attack. However, this made Ancelotti's team susceptible to teams having a width as a lot of duty were on the full backs to defend as well attack. However, to counter this, Ancelotti used man marking and their 3-man midfield was called upon to press the opponents.

Carlo Ancelotti won Premier League and F.A Cup in his maiden year
Carlo Ancelotti won Premier League and F.A Cup in his maiden year

While Mourinho's team was known for its defensive stability, Ancelotti's team was known for their attacking prowess. Chelsea scored 103 Premier League goals to win the Premier League with Carlo Ancelotti and also the F.A Cup under his maiden year.

Conte's three-man Shield

After a troubling season which saw Chelsea finish 10th in the Premier League table, Antonio Conte was appointed as the head coach, who brought in a new air in the Premier League. Ironically it was Arsenal which helped Chelsea to clinch the league by winning 3-0 at Emirates early in the season, which prompted Conte to go immediately with his philosophy, using 3 centre backs in defence.

After losing to Liverpool and Arsenal, the former Juventus and Italy manager changed Chelsea's usual formation to 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 which saw him making an unbeaten run of 13 games in the League.

Thibaut Courtois at the goal, with Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta and the ‘Sweeper' David Luiz were in charge of the three-man defence, while N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas where the two central midfield players who controlled the midfield.

Kante was Chelsea's new ‘anchorman' providing numerous tackles and interceptions in the middle and the defensive third, while Matic or Fabregas was given more license to move up the field. This formation allowed the wingbacks some protection as Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses were charged with providing width in the offensive phase.

In attack, it was Eden Hazard and Pedro or Willian who would cut inside and attack the half-spaces, with Diego Costa leading the attack, creating an overload in the opposition's final third.

Conte's change in tactics paid off!
Conte's change in tactics paid off!

Conte required his team to be defensively organized, where players were given instructions to close down half spaces and stay in their 5-4-1 defensive formation. This meant that Chelsea focused more on staying in their shape and didn't press with a higher tempo.

In the build-up play, Luiz played the role of a sweeper, which saw him making long balls, tearing down opposition's defence. The team made use of short passes and interplay in the middle of the opposition's half to force the opposition's defence to come out of their position which would allow them to attack the space left behind.

The wing backs were ever ready to provide width in the attack by running down the channels and cutting inside or crossing the ball to Costa. With a rigid defence and a fluid attack, Conte led Chelsea to their 5th Premier league glory in his maiden year, with a whopping thirty wins in the league.

Sarri's Sarrismo

Maurizio Sarri's footballing philosophy, called as Sarri ball or Sarrismo, requires players to play with an attacking mindset, which rely heavily on passing and interplay between the players and pressing the opposition in defence and counter-attacks.

Sarri plays in a 4-3-3 formation with Kepa Arrizabalaga as Goalkeeper, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, Luiz and Alonso in defence, Kante, Jorginho and Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic in midfield, and Hazard, Alvaro Morata and Willian or Pedro in the attack.

The biggest transition that can be seen from Conte and the rest of the winning squads is the application of pressing. Chelsea under Sarri plays a high pressing game with a high defensive line, in contrast to sitting deep with a midfield shield under Conte.

The forward players press the opposition in the ball while the midfield players try to block the passing options. Chelsea's defensive position is also compact and heavily compressed in the middle of the field which does leave some space behind the channels especially with full backs pressing high, which is however countered with the presence of Kante or Kovacic or Barkley covering the channels.

In attack, the team prefer to keep the possession and start from the defence with sweepers Luiz and Rudiger being the first instigators of attack with their long balls. They also rely on quick short interplays to get around the opposition half so as to run in behind the opposition defence or look to free Morata for a one on one with the opposition's keeper.

Sarri's attack exploits opposition's channels where the fullback, midfielder and the forward combine together with their quick interplay. In the heart of the team lies Jorginho, a tactical defensive midfielder who dictates Chelsea's play both in attack and defence.

In the build-up play, Jorginho would often assist the centre-backs who are being pressed by dropping in a bit and then releasing a quick ball to either of the free players in the opposition's half, similar to a ‘Regista', a role played by Pirlo in his Juventus years.

His ability to withstand pressing is also a plus point which allows him to utilise the space left behind by the opposition players. In defence, he would often block the passing options and would often drop to assist the centre-backs in the middle of the defensive third.

Sarri's Sarrismo has clearly made an impact in the Premier League with this high-intensity football and the statistics show that Chelsea has changed drastically under Sarri with more possession, more passes, especially in the opposition's half.

However, given that this is Sarri's first season at Chelsea, they would surely face some difficult times. But if this team continues to play the way Sarri demands, the fans and the Premier League might be in for a treat!


Chelsea since being taken over by Abramovich, have seen a lot of managers come and go, and along with them their tactics. However, Sarri's team has some uniqueness over their past squads. The high tempo play and the high press that Sarri demands is something that is unique with past Chelsea title-winning squads, especially Conte and his deep, organised defence.

The mentality of the team under Mourinho and Conte was quite defensive and the team used to threaten the opposition in the counter-attack, which is something different in an attack-minded, possession-based play under Sarri, which could be said to have certain similarities with Ancelotti's team.

Sarri's Napoli squad was known for its excellent play and Sarri is itself known for its footballing philosophy as something like an orchestra, it will be interesting to see how far can he go with Chelsea with his tactics and what changes will be made in his tactics to stay ahead of the rest.

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Edited by Raunak J