Sarri seeks bal­ance in mis­sion to make Chelsea the en­ter­tain­ers

Chelsea head coach works in­ces­santly on bring­ing a new flair to how his team play, writes Jason Burt

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

It was only in the hours af­ter Chelsea’s 3-2 Premier League vic­tory over Ar­se­nal last Satur­day evening that Mau­r­izio Sarri al­lowed him­self some time off. Even then, it was just a few pre­cious hours. Re­mark­ably, it was the first time since he ar­rived at Chelsea as their new head coach that Sarri had even ven­tured into cen­tral Lon­don – so in­tensely has he worked.

So the 59-year-old Ital­ian walked for miles from Stam­ford Bridge through the streets as he headed to­wards the cen­tre of the city, his thoughts only dis­turbed by the fans of his for­mer club, Napoli, who he left in the sum­mer – rather than those of Chelsea – who recog­nised him along the way.

“I found a lot of peo­ple of Naples,” Sarri said, laugh­ing, at Chelsea’s train­ing ground in Cob­ham, Sur­rey, where his com­mand of English is al­ready im­pres­sive. “I have spent only one day in Lon­don in 40 days here. We had to pre­pare the sea­son without play­ers, so it was dif­fi­cult the first part of the sea­son for me. But I’m not able to switch off, me. Never. I am think­ing al­ways about my team and about the match, or the next match. It’s my way to work in foot­ball.”

Sarri may well be al­ways think­ing, but it is the Chelsea play­ers – and the de­fend­ers, in par­tic­u­lar – who have been set the chal­lenge of adapt­ing to “Sarri-ball” and how they need to think dif­fer­ently, to com­pletely change their mind­set, their ap­proach and the way they play, to achieve that.

Sarri’s style of in­tense press­ing, play­ing a high de­fen­sive line, dom­i­nat­ing pos­ses­sion and mov­ing the ball quickly can be hugely en­ter­tain­ing but is also de­mand­ing and does not come without risks – as Chelsea found out against Ar­se­nal when they con­ceded two goals and could have con­ceded more as they looked un­sure at times, es­pe­cially in a chaotic first half.

It is a sig­nif­i­cant shift from the 3-5-2 op­er­ated by An­to­nio Conte, built on solid de­fence and quick counter-at­tack – af­ter Conte orig­i­nally tried to be more ex­pan­sive – with Sarri in­sist­ing he will never play with five de­fend­ers, hav­ing at­tempted it ear­lier in his coach­ing ca­reer only to find “it’s not my way”. Right now, there does not ap­pear to be any go­ing back for Chelsea, who are break­ing the mould of Conte and Jose Mour­inho. Owner Ro­man Abramovich has al­ways craved a brand of “fan­tasy foot­ball” with a clear, cre­ative iden­tity, and Sarri has been charged with de­liv­er­ing it.

In fact, Sarri con­ceded it may take up to three months for his ideas to work at Stam­ford Bridge and although there is an ex­pec­ta­tion that he will be given time, it is a tightrope walk. “Be­cause it’s not so easy to change the mind,” he ex­plained. “If you are used to de­fend­ing by look­ing at the man, and I ask you to de­fend by look­ing only at the ball, I think if you are 18, it’s maybe easier. If you are 28 and, for 10 years, you’ve played the other way, it’s not so easy, so you have to change com­pletely the mind.”

It was a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight from Sarri as to how he is at­tempt­ing to rad­i­cally change things ahead of Chelsea’s away fix­ture to­day at New­cas­tle United, man­aged by Rafael Ben­itez who, of course, Sarri suc­ceeded as Napoli coach and who pre­vi­ously was the in­terim man­ager at Stam­ford Bridge.

“Be­cause I think it’s bet­ter,” Sarri in­sisted of his ap­proach. “I think, if you ar­rive to think in this way, then it’s very easy. It de­pends only on you. You are not de­pend­ing on the op­po­nent. I think it’s very easy, and if you de­fend by look­ing only at the ball, you can stay very high up the pitch. In the other way, you de­fend on the move­ments of the op­po­nent.”

The ideal is to press the op­po­nent for the full 90 min­utes by hunt­ing the ball down and wor­ry­ing less about the move­ment of the op­po­nent.

But is that not too de­mand­ing? “No. I don’t think so,” Sarri in­sisted. “If you de­fend for­ward, you only have to do 10 me­tres, 15 me­tres. If you have the ball in­side, you have to be back for 50 me­tres. So I think we can press for 90 min­utes, only if we have the right dis­tances be­tween the play­ers. We stay very high.

“Oth­er­wise, it’s a prob­lem, of course. In the last part of the first half against Ar­se­nal, we lost dis­tances, so it was im­pos­si­ble to press and re­cover the ball. We were im­me­di­ately in trou­ble. But I think we can do it for 90 min­utes.”

It is a dif­fer­ent way. Chelsea have switched to a 4-3-3 for­ma­tion and are, in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary man­ner in which Pep Guardi­ola changed Manch­ester City, al­most a “live” ex­per­i­ment.

Sarri has been lauded as the best coach in Europe by Guardi­ola, who was deeply im­pressed by his in­tense work in Naples, and there is a key to why Chelsea and Abramovich hired him: he wants to en­ter­tain.

“It’s im­por­tant if I like it, first of all,” Sarri said. “I want to en­joy, I want to have fun, press the ball. Then, if I en­joy the game, maybe the sup­port­ers en­joy the game. And I think that, if the team en­joy the game, they have a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to win the match.”

Did he ex­plain this to Abramovich? “But I think he knows it,” Sarri said.

“If they called me 40 days ago, I think it’s be­cause they wanted to see my foot­ball here, I think. It’s not easy, but I have to try.”

It raises the ques­tions: what if it does not work and does he have the play­ers to do it? Will he com­pro­mise his style? “I don’t know. Maybe I have to do it,” Sarri said be­fore, tellingly, adding: “But I think I am bet­ter when I play my foot­ball, my way of foot­ball. I don’t know if I’m a very good coach if I teach an­other [way of ] foot­ball. I don’t know.” As ever with Chelsea, it will be in­trigu­ing to find the an­swer.

One vi­sion: Mau­r­izio Sarri is de­ter­mined to con­vert the Chelsea play­ers to his brand of press­ing, pos­ses­sion and fast-mov­ing foot­ball

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