A Marathon, Not A Sprint: A Half-Time Report on Maurizio Sarri’s First Season

Credit: BBC

Football is a fickle game.

Even more so in our online, social-media reliant lives does the hunger for extreme reactions feel ever more intoxicating. Telling the modern fan to be patient, is like asking John-Obi Mikel to pass forward.

At a club like Chelsea, where the undeniable thirst for silverware trumps all below it, the idea of a long-term architect in the dugout seems a farcical illusion to those inside or out of the SW6 bubble. The acquisition of Maurizio Sarri in the summer appeared to fly right in the face of Roman’s empire.

An unorthodox, former banker, who wanted his sides to play football right off the cuff. An auteur of the beautiful game, entertainment first – pragmatism second. Without a trophy to his name, Sarri seemed a more suitable fit for the rivals in North London or Merseyside.

Five months after his appointment, Sarri’s Chelsea side sit fourth on 43 points, two clear of Arsenal. Winning 13, drawing four and losing three. Scoring 38 and conceding 16. From the pre-season’s doomsday proclamations from the most pessimistic of Blues, it certainly isn’t a disastrous return, however, it isn’t unblemished either.

With the celebrations of the festive season nearing its completion, it is time to reflect, analyse and look forward as we reach the business end of the season. This article will list, 5 positives and 5 negatives from the first five months of the season.

#5  Positive: The Signing of Jorginho

Although he may have lost a little steam in recent weeks, the Italian regista has been the focal point to bringing Sarri’s philosophy to Chelsea. From the opening moments in Perth back in July during the Blues first friendly, it was clear to see why Sarri had insisted on bringing the midfielder with him to west London.

Also, given the price tag and the fact the club nabbed him under the noses of Champions Manchester City, the signing in itself was a statement to fans and media alike that Chelsea still have the capability and pulling power to attract the player’s in-demand.

With the addition of Mateo Kovačić, Jorginho is the first in a change of footballing philosophy at Chelsea. A new style of player, a new method and mindset of how a deep-lying midfielder can operate. The Kante-Jorginho debate seems one that will likely rage on for many months to come, though no-one can claim the acquisition hasn’t been a smart one and won’t prove fruitful to Chelsea in the coming seasons as the No.5 adapts to the English game.

#5 Negative: Kante’s Impact

Following on from my last point, the utilization of Jorginho has put N’Golo Kante is a difficult position.

No longer positioned in the deeper-lying role he had so successfully mastered for both Leicester and Chelsea; leading both to Premier League titles. The Frenchman was pushed forward, expected to play a more attacking role as Sarri quickly went about radicalizing the Chelsea setup.

It’s a debate that’s split the fanbase and pundits alike. Chelsea went unbeaten till late November, however, cracks were showing in only the second game at home to Arsenal, where a big gap appeared easily exploited by the Gunners in a chaotic first half.

Spurs not only capitalized on this space but put Dele Alli on Jorginho to shut down Chelsea’s engine room, leaving little room for Sarri’s playmaker to construct attacking moves from deep. Two weeks later, Chelsea beat the Champions, with Kante putting in one of his best performances of the season.

The debate continues to rumble on, thought the Squawka stat proves that Kante’s biggest asset is being hampered by the role he’s being asked to perform on a weekly basis. Sarri’s dedication to his vision of a 4-3-3 formation with a technically gifted regista is commendable.

Although, weakening one of Chelsea’s best players may cost him dearly if he persists in this vein, leaving his side exposed and easy to get at in the biggest of occasions.

#4 Positive: The Emergence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek

It might not be the full breakthrough many of us have hoped for, but it is a start – a glimmer of hope of a brighter dawn for Chelsea’s youngest hopefuls.

Having to be patient, Loftus-Cheek has spent little time moaning and a lot of dedication into proving naysayers wrong with his displays on the pitch. A glorious hat-trick against Bate Borisov in the Europa League peaked many’s interest. Three days later, he came off the bench and rounded off a 4-0 drubbing of Burnley at Turf Moor.

Premier League goals against Fulham and Wolves have helped him edge nearer to the starting place. And his continued motivation to put in standout displays playing out of position on the right-wing only heightens his credit.

This is not to claim he has no faults or weaknesses. Many times he can be accused of being sloppy in possession, overplaying at times when a more simpler approach is required. Though Loftus-Cheek’s future looks like a bright one IF he is given the playing time.

#4 Negative – Eden Hazard’s Future

We may dread it. We may try and run from it, but as Thanos says himself – “Destiny still arrives, all the same”. (Apologies for the film reference)

However, the destiny of Eden Hazard joining Los Blancos seems a fate determined long ago and one the club has been fighting ever since the signing of the Belgian in 2012.

With the continued delay over a contract and rumors of alleged player unrest with their teammates unclear future, it’s a dark cloud that isn’t going away anytime soon. The fear comes with Hazard’s growth in importance in the team, seeming to carry his side over the line in many games.

Since the departure of Diego Costa, Hazard’s responsibility has ever grown, whilst teammates form has fluctuated.

It is an issue that has preceded Sarri’s arrival, however now he’s here, the Italian will be the manager to likely oversee its conclusion.

#3 Positive –  Made For Chelsea: Antonio Rüdiger

Since signing from Roma in the summer of 2017, Antonio Rüdiger has quickly asserted himself in Chelsea’s starting eleven, gaining much admiration in the process.

Under Sarri, Rüdiger has reached new levels, growing in importance and stature in a back-four alongside David Luiz. Albeit the defender hasn’t been without his poor performances, but the German’s personality has shone through, along with his talent.

Rüdiger seems built for Premier League football and built for the Royal Blue of Chelsea. Not only are his strength, pace, raw athleticism and tackling ability eye-catching; his eye for a pass from deep is something that goes under the radar and makes him a great fit for Sarri’s system.

Whether David Luiz will remain his defensive partner for the long haul remains to be seen, though there aren’t many performers as consistent this season as the 25-year-old.

#3 Negative –  A Soft Underbelly

Throughout the many derogatory titles that have been thrown at Chelsea by critics down the years, a weak mentality and soft spine are ones rarely uttered.

Though it seems Chelsea, a bit like the previous campaign – are still struggling to find a new spine which is resolute and unfazed by problems in games. The defeats to Tottenham, Wolves and Leicester all highlighted an alarming sense of chaos and fragility within Chelsea’s side to fold very easily.

In the case of Spurs, it appeared the players were left in the dressing room, as a group of passengers seemed incapable and unwilling to meet the challenge put in front of them by a fierce rival. Against Wolves, Chelsea appeared well on their way to a routine three points. Though two goals from the hosts turned the game on its head and left the Blues reeling, out for the count. At home to Leicester, a sucker punch hit the side once again and for the rest of the second period, players seemed rushed on the ball, unsure, indecisive – aimless in their attempts to resolve the problem.

For Sarri, this can be put down to a case of players still adapting to a new philosophy. The comparison to Pep Guardiola’s first season with Manchester City brought similar problems, leading many to speculate if the iconic coach to replicate his previous triumphs from Catalonia in Manchester. The rest as they say, is history.

#2 Positive –  Manchester City Win

On the opposite end to the previous negative, Sarri was able to oversee a performance many didn’t see coming.

Three days after the disappointment of the Wolves capitulation, there was a growing sense of dread as we trudged down to the Bridge against the irresistible Champions, who seemed certain to exploit Chelsea’s weaknesses once again.

For 44 minutes, it looked that way, with City having all of the ball and Chelsea’s attackers looking invisible. N’Golo Kante’s perfectly timed finish capped off a precise and well worked move to stun both sets of fans for different reasons.

An improved second half display lead to a second from the head of David Luiz to send the Bridge into raptures. The day not only was the perfect response to the previous outing, but it was a signal that Chelsea can still compete with the best in the league and overthrow them on their day.

It also presented to us a more pragmatic side to Sarri, willing to sacrifice his principles in order to put his side in the best position to claim victory. If Sarri continues in this approach, fears of a naive appointment will soon dissipate.

#2 Negative –  Inconsistent Performers 

I don’t like to scapegoat players. More than often, I rally against it on social media tirelessly. The unrelenting hatred from some of our supporters online to those who proudly wear our badge is nothing other than disgusting and must be condemned by more rational heads.

I have long been a defender and admirer of Willian. His service to Chelsea has been incredible and his continued work rate and unselfishness have made him critical in many triumphs during his time with the club. However, with him reaching 30 – it should be time for Chelsea to look for a replacement.

Willian has missed several key chances in games where Chelsea have dropped points, and although this isn’t his responsibility, a player of his calibre and experience should be getting a better goal return than he is.

Also added to that list is Marcus Alonso, who like Willian has been instrumental in many key and memorable moments since his arrival in 2016. However his attacking output which seemed to transfer from wing back to full back seamlessly at the start of the season has appeared to fade away.

This has left Chelsea exposed, most notably leaving space for Leicester’s winning goal at Stamford Bridge. Emerson has featured heavily in the Europa League and League Cup ties, showcasing his abilities and it would be refreshing to see Alonso tested for the first team shirt which seems a guarantee at the moment.

#1 Positive –  Much More to Come 

Anyone whose gazed over Chelsea’s performances this season will have garnered a clear vision of how Maurizio Sarri is attempting to play football.

Possession is key, however it isn’t just about keeping the ball. With the signing of Kepa, playing out from the back has become routine and although the tactic is risky of inviting pressure that deep in your own half, when it works, it looks superb.

It hasn’t been perfect. Chelsea have looked at times incapable of shutting game down despite dominating periods of ties with ease, playing some lovely stuff. Whilst in the exact same game looking chaotic, frantic and out of control.

The more irrational will try and claim Chelsea haven’t played well all season and that Sarri is already doomed to fail with limited players. I trust you, the reader are more level-headed than that and can appreciate what Chelsea’s new coach is trying to achieve, and how radical it is compared to the regimes previous to it.

Chelsea have played some brilliant stuff, scoring some wonderfully worked goals. The dominant wins away to Southampton and Burnley in October demonstrated a side fully in control, taking the game away from the opposition, suffocating our opponents and being clinical in front of goal.

Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic, Jorghino and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have all breathed new life into a midfield that looked threadbare last season. Eden Hazard has continued to work his magic up top, and with a potential signing around the corner, Chelsea doesn’t look like a side far away from challenging in the near future.

#1 Negative –  The Striker Situation

It is the elephant in the room. This Chelsea sides biggest achilles heel, that seems to falter at all the key moments.

Both Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud have struggled for goals, with both returning only six between them in the league. This simply isn’t good enough for a club of Chelsea’s stature and has forced Sarri’s hand in attempting to play Eden Hazard through the middle.

For Morata, it seems similar to the Fernando Torres situation. A player with very brittle confidence that despite false dawns, has mostly gone off the rails since his strong start under Antonio Conte.

The ever moody body language which looks like a teenager sulking after a row with his parents about his music being too loud. His petulant attitude to concede silly fouls, kicking the ball away moments after coming off the bench to receive a cheap yellow. His record-breaking run of offside flags that triumph some other Premier League clubs entire total for the season, and lack of conviction when chances come his way – all lead me to conclude Morata isn’t cut out for Chelsea.

Giroud, on the other hand, is a good player to have around. An experienced pro who gives his all when required and can interchange with Eden Hazard allowing him extra space in and around the box. Chelsea fans rightly appreciate his work ethic.

Though this is the key problem for Sarri. The departure of Diego Costa, no matter what those claim about his attitude must acknowledge the gaping hole he has left behind. Costa was not only an enigmatic, cult figure that wore his heart on his sleeve, battling for the blues from the frontline – he was an amazing goalscorer.

So many of Chelsea’s current issues in game would evaporate, or at least be covered up for the time being by a natural goalscorer. There is a certain type of striker that has always seemed to succeed at Stamford Bridge, and that’s a classic No.9.

Peter Osgood, Kerry Dixon, Gianluca Vialli, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Didier Drogba and Diego Costa all fit a certain mould and seemed a perfect fit. Whilst lankier, more technical forwards have flopped and struggled to adapt.

Gonzalo Higuaín is the name on the lips of most at the moment and I can’t say for sure if given his current age and the apparent price tag is worth the gamble, but its clear a goalscorer was probably top of Maurizio Sarri’s Christmas List.

Thank you for reading.

You can follow me on Twitter, @sonofchelsea,

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