Policy of Napoli-isation is paying dividends for Sarri
Victory shows manager’s methods are starting to bear fruit at Chelsea, writes Paul Hayward
Unflattering comparisons were forming when David Luiz sent a long-ball over Manchester City’s heads and clever work by Eden Hazard set up N’Golo Kante to score for Chelsea. The siege was over and Kante was the new Frank Lampard.
Until the end of a one-sided first-half it was painful to compare City’s incisive, decisive attacking with Chelsea’s efforts to survive until the break. “Now we have to face the first difficulties of the season,” Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea’s manager, said before the game. He meant the defeats to Spurs and Wolves. City arrived with so many fresh “difficulties” for Sarri’s side you could hardly count them. But City betrayed a few flaws too; poor finishing in a first period they dominated, and negligence by Leroy Sane when Kante ran straight past him to score.
Finally somebody was standing up to City. Emboldened, Chelsea scored again with 12 minutes left, with a David Luiz header from a disputed corner. Thus Chelsea not only gave the title race a boost but dispelled premature negativity about Sarri’s suitability as manager. Pep Guardiola, his counterpart, called Chelsea “an exceptional team,” adding: “What I see right now [in Chelsea] is a team to compete for everything.”
Some turnaround. Kante’s was Chelsea’s first shot in another pass and move parade by England’s champions. For the locals, doubts were swirling. Marcos Alonso was dreadful at left-back, Hazard was isolated in the false nine role and City’s attacking midfielders were going about their demonic business – without converting pressure into goals.
There has been a whiff of overstatement about Chelsea’s difficulties: a premature panic borne of the traditional shakiness around the manager’s position here. Two defeats in three is enough these days to get people wondering, if not yet speculating. A simpler problem has been the brilliance of City and Liverpool, which Chelsea had not been able to match since starting the season with five victories.
So by the time City rolled into town pundits were already asking whether Sarri would need a Conte moment: a day of revelation and change. Antonio Conte’s switch to three at the back after a defeat at Arsenal in September 2016 was the catalyst for their titlewinning run. Sarri has so far stuck with the Napoli-isation plan and asked for something English football never hands out lightly. Time.
No squad is more familiar with re-education programmes. Over the years Chelsea’s players have been told to embrace ideas from Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Holland, Spain and Israel. Mostly they listen enough to show politeness – then get on and do their thing. There is nothing radical about Sarri’s big idea, which is a variation on the high press of Liverpool and City – but he is highly regarded by the coaching aristocracy, whatever anyone thinks of his use of Kante, and has Chelsea about where squad quality suggests they should be.
As ever in these parts, the support of the players is paramount, and Chelsea showed no inclination to watch the Man City carousel for 90 minutes. Kante’s goal revived the old Stamford Bridge fighting spirit.
With faith in Alvaro Morata collapsing again, and Olivier Giroud on the bench, Chelsea matched City in starting without a specialist centreforward. Hazard, a No 10, played number nine, with Pedro and Willian either side and Kante making the right-sided, attacking runs that so appal admirers of his defensive midfield work.
If ever there was a game for Kante to be used conservatively, it was against Guardiola’s orchestra of passers. It would be wrong to suggest Kante spent the whole game impersonating Lampard in his roving days, but nor was he tethered to his best position: the deep central screening role.
But who could grumble, after he had ended Chelsea’s longest wait for a shot of any kind in the Premier League since 200607? “He defended very well, [with] some good counterattacking,” Sarri said of Kante. “He was the boss for the first goal, but today he played in the right position, close to Jorginho.”
Even the best foreign coaches tend not to adapt instantly to the Premier League, with its physicality, fixture congestion and array of playing styles, each of which can put strain on the new arrival’s grand plan. Elite managers all warn each other not to expect a smooth transition to English football. Even Guardiola’s pure-passing-fromthe-back ran into the problem of Man City having too few players who were schooled in that method, and too few who could adapt overnight. And Guardiola, the unofficial chairman of the Sarri fan club (”I admire him,” he said), advised his rival to expect rough waters. Sarri said: “He told me the first season in England is really very difficult.” Chelsea’s supporters also remain undaunted by the rise of City and Liverpool. To the pocket of City fans here they chanted: “Champions of Europe – you’ll never sing that.” A smarter bet is that City will indeed sing that one day, unless Uefa throw them out. But this was Chelsea’s day – and one of vindication for Sarri.
Tried and tested: Maurizio Sarri is sticking to his principles