Pol­icy of Napoli-isa­tion is pay­ing div­i­dends for Sarri

Vic­tory shows man­ager’s meth­ods are start­ing to bear fruit at Chelsea, writes Paul Hay­ward

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League -

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

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