The hiring of Maurizio Sarri was a symbolic moment in Chelsea’s recent history. It signalled a change in philosophy from dreary defensive displays to ambitious, expansive passing football. Many Chelsea fans have never seen an inherently attacking Chelsea team in the Abramovich era, (except for Carlo Ancelotti’s double winning side), who are able to press the opposition intensely, as well as being able to elegantly pass through the opposition’s defensive lines. This is “Sarriball” simplified.
The Need For Patience
Anyone who observed Sarri’s Napoli from afar knew that it would take some time to implement one of the most unique and dynamic systems in European football. Reason being that Chelsea have various, inherent flaws holding them back from progressing towards perfecting Sarriball; from a lack of a striker, to lethargic wing-play; issues which all came to the forefront during Conte’s second season at the club.
However, impatience seems to effortlessly fester its way into the Chelsea fan base the minute things aren’t going according to plan. The club are to blame for this due to the sacking of numerous managers in recent years. Chelsea lacks an identity which is why we were all so excited about Sarri when he first came – we knew that he’d bring a new, possession-based way of playing; something we haven’t seen at Stamford Bridge for quite some time. But are we expecting too much too soon from Sarri?
We have seen glimpses of Sarriball in big games this season, most notably against Manchester City and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League. However, realistically, only glimpses are not what Sarri and many fans would have been expecting at this stage of the season. In my opinion, we should be much closer to mastering Sarri’s style of play. I think the main reason why we haven’t been able to grasp it to the level of Napoli yet comes down to one main reason; a lack of players suited to the play the system effectively.
Therefore, we need to have patience to see who the club buys, or who Sarri phases into the starting line-up.
Younger Players Can Be Coached
The implementation of a radically different tactical system requires numerous stars to align. In my opinion, one of the key factors is to have a balanced mix of youth and experience, as demonstrated by Klopp at Liverpool. This allows for the younger players who have a point to prove to be moulded to mastering the system, alongside the more experienced players. However, Chelsea have no balance in this aspect whatsoever. The team fielded by Sarri against Arsenal has been the regular starting line-up in recent Premier League games. Kepa and Kovacic are the youngest in the team, both 24 years old, and Hazard is the youngest attacker at 28.
But it’s clear that Chelsea have some players in crucial positions who are too old (and lacking enough natural talent) to be coached to the desired level which would allow them to master an alien tactical system. Alonso and Willian come to mind. A theme with ageing players is that they cannot be moulded as effectively as younger players to fit a completely new system. This could be down to the physical demands of the fast-paced modern game, or what I think is the case with Alonso and Willian – pure ignorance and arrogance towards a new philosophy. The phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” springs to mind.
Therefore, if Sarri is looking for a solution without dipping extensively into the transfer market, he needn’t look further than Chelsea’s youth prospects to solve the current dilemmas of not having suitable players for the system and a lack of a winning mentality.
Firstly, Ethan Ampadu is in many people’s eyes the future Chelsea captain. His mentality is exemplary, and his natural talent on and off the ball is unquestionable. I personally would be happy to see him as Jorginho’s backup in the regista position. Secondly, Hudson-Odoi needs to play instead of Willian. He has pace, makes dynamic runs, can cross the ball, and has overall end product – pretty much the opposite of Willian.
The two youngsters have a point to prove and now is the perfect time to give them more high quality (Premier League) minutes on the pitch.
Is Sarri To Blame To Some Extent?
Although I’m advocating for patience to be given to Sarri, I do think that he’s at fault in this aspect. We saw at Napoli that he rarely rotated his team, using about 15 players regularly. This worked for him at Napoli, but it clearly isn’t working at Chelsea. The sooner Sarri accepts the idea of squad rotation as a feasible way around Chelsea’s thin squad, the better Chelsea will play – especially during the back end of the season as crucial players like Hazard and Jorginho are being run into the ground.
Most of the players who started against Arsenal were at Chelsea before Sarri arrived, bought and coached by managers who prioritised defence over attack – the opposite style of play to what Sarri is trying to implement. We need to keep in mind that Sarri has barely had a transfer window to construct his perfect team to execute his system to the highest standard. It’s a good sign that the board are backing him with the signing of Higuain which goes against their policy of not signing players in their thirties.
It’s important to not be reactionary and impatient following a bad defeat. The cries from Chelsea “fans” who want Sarri to be sacked have been completely uncalled for and lack context. This is a transition season for Chelsea. Sarri will need time to nurture the younger players and the board will have to back him again in the transfer window if he sees a player who is able to better the starting line-up. To add perspective, in their first seasons, Klopp finished 8th with Liverpool, Guardiola finished 3rd with Man City and Pochettino finished 5th with Spurs. Sarri is currently 4th in his first season. New tactical ideologies take time to implement so we need to be patient and manage expectations in order to see Sarri succeed.