Despite much initial pessimism from Chelsea fans (myself included), it seems that Maurizio Sarri has exceeded expectations with his performance thus far. The Chelsea boss has had a good Premier League record thus far, as well as having knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup. This is a welcome change for the club, after what most would consider a highly disappointing last season under Antonio Conte.
Not only are Chelsea playing a noticeably different style of football than under Conte, they also seem completely re-energised. Rather than playing often drab, bland football, they are now playing for a manager who encourages a bit of panache. But will the new style of play be sustainable, or will it taper off once the honeymoon period ends? Whilst Sarri clearly delivers attractive football, will he also deliver trophies? Considering he hasn’t won a single trophy in his career, some remain doubtful.
The players are enjoying the change
Chelsea defender, David Luiz, has publicly praised Sarri’s approach, as well as his attitude to life. Luiz was left out in the cold under Conte, and no one really knew why. Was he injured, or just simply being shunned? However, under Sarri, he is getting way more game time. Luiz says Sarri is “a great person”. This will be music to the ears of many Chelsea fans, who regard Luiz as somewhat of a cult figure. After being side-lined for much of last season, many worried he would be sold, but his admiration for Sarri will allay any fears of his departure. During the mid-week fixture with Liverpool, Luiz appeared to have a huge impact to the team when brought on, and the game really changed for the better after he was added to the fray.
Alvaro Morata, who also struggled under Conte, has publicly confessed he already prefers playing for his new coach. Now that Chelsea play more indirect football, he feels more involved and able to look for space to run into. It’s worth remembering, also, that Jorginho followed Sarri to London, shunning interest from several clubs including Man City, just to play for him. He is clearly a popular character in the dressing room – something that couldn’t be said about Conte when at Chelsea.
Sarri has now been publicly backed by Chelsea legend, Claude Makelele, to go on to make history at the club. Whilst acknowledging that competing with champions Manchester City may not be possible this season, the Frenchman says he expects success from Sarri in the coming seasons.
With Chelsea’s new era underway, some on social media have christened the rejuvenated style of play “Sarri-ball”. The Italian’s favoured 4-3-3 formation is certainly having a positive effect on his players. Pedro, who struggled under Conte, has contributed with three league goals this season already, whilst Eden Hazard and Willian are also creating plenty of chances. Sarri may take a similar approach with the Belgian as he did with Dries Mertens at Napoli.
Chelsea fans will be hoping their team can emulate the fluidity with which Sarri’s Napoli attacked their opposition. The club has plenty of pacey players who can be called upon to break forward with precision, allowing their team-mates to pepper the opposition’s box with shots. Under Conte, the team looked almost afraid to shoot at times, so if Sarri can get them looking comfortable on the ball again, that would be a good start. From what we’ve seen so far, confidence is growing.
It will also give defensive players a chance to play a more aggressive, compact role and so hopefully improve from last season’s apparent lack of cohesion and organisation, which appeared lacklustre at times. Marcos Alonso, whilst playing as a left-back, has already created two assists and a goal. Rudiger has also come out to praise Sarri, after admiring his desire for defenders to play the ball short and keep possession, as well as his constant drive to improve.
There are still issues
Slightly concerning, however, is the lack of goals from strikers this season. Only one of Chelsea’s fourteen goals in the league have come from strikers. Alvaro Morata scored against Arsenal, but none of his peers have followed suit. In keeping with the sluggish play we have come to expect from the Spaniard, he has failed to impress. With many Chelsea fans losing patience, not helped by the succession of poorly performing predecessors, support could begin to wane if he doesn’t find his feet quickly. Giroud is becoming somewhat of an unlikely cult hero, after his physicality, desire and strong work ethic has quickly endeared him to fans. But if Sarri cannot get his strikers scoring on a regular basis, he certainly won’t get the team playing to their full potential.
Equally, his brand of “Sarri-ball” relies on often strenuous displays of physicality, across the pitch. It will really separate the shirkers from the workers, when it comes to who’s really putting a shift in. Those who don’t want to give 110% each week will quickly become apparent. In their first season under the new regime, such physically demanding play may take its toll, and fatigue may set in.
However, much like Conte in his first season when everyone was too busy talking about the Mancunian clubs, Sarri may be able to slip under the radar, without the burden of CL football. Yet again, much of the press attention will undoubtedly be focused on Pep and Jose (especially if, as I predicted, Jose leaves United in a dramatic fashion). This is perfect for Sarri’s Chelsea, who will relish the chance to play the dark horse role, potentially winning the league despite initially being classed as outsiders.