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
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