Are Sarri and Chelsea a good fit going forward?

It is this tinkering of the squad which earned him much respect in Italy, with Mertens managing a total of 28 goals at the end of the 2016/17 season.
— Tinotenda Magiya, FirstTouch Africa

Often times clubs find themselves in positions where making a change in management is necessary for the progression of the club. That was the case at Chelsea Football Club at the end of the 2017/18 season after a hostile atmosphere had taken over the dressing room with players allegedly fed up of the reign of Antonio Conte. Also, the prospect of a certain Maurizio Sarri possibly switching to the West London club and introducing a new brand of football was too good an opportunity to let pass. In the end, the former Napoli boss flew over to join the English Premier League and with him, he brought Jorginho, his anchor-man and the rest of his Sarriball. With one game to go in the 2018/19 season, Chelsea have secured a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League but it papers over the cracks as they have struggled for almost all season. Here’s a review of whether Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea are a good fit.

Napoli's coach Maurizio Sarri greets coach player Gonzalo Higuain during the TIM Cup match between SSC Napoli and Hellas Verona FC at Stadio San Paolo on December 16, 2015 in Naples, Italy.  (Dec. 15, 2015 - Source: Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images Europe)

Napoli's coach Maurizio Sarri greets coach player Gonzalo Higuain during the TIM Cup match between SSC Napoli and Hellas Verona FC at Stadio San Paolo on December 16, 2015 in Naples, Italy.

(Dec. 15, 2015 - Source: Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images Europe)

The Philosophy

Having watched last season’s UEFA Champions League tie between Manchester City and Napoli, you could tell that Sarri’s football philosophy was up there with best. Its focus on an intense pressing much-like the famous Jurgen press, the unique transitional one-touch football spearheaded by Jorginho in a deep-lying midfield role and an unorthodox frontline typified by a false 9 tactic justified all the noises about the manager. It is no surprise that Maurizio Sarri grew popular and rose to prominence in a relatively short period. Despite being a banker, his passion for a unique brand of football saw him join Pescara in the Italian Serie B back in 2005. It is here that he implemented his ideas which have evolved into the tactics he later on deployed at Napoli and most recently, Chelsea. Sarri left Pescara, joined Empoli for a short stint before making a move to Italian giants Napoli. It is here that he really made a name for himself. The next part of the article reviews his time at Napoli.

Naples

June 11, 2015 marked the day that Maurizio Sarri signed for Napoli and replaced Rafa Benitez as the manager of the club. This was his first move to a top European club and he aimed to stay at the top. In his first season, he brought with him, Elseig Hysaj, Pepe Reina and Allan, who became the stalwarts for the subsequent campaign in which Napoli finished second in the Italian Serie A, behind Juventus. They played an integral role in a successful campaign together with the Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain who scored a record 36 goals in the league before being signed by Juventus in July 2016. With this loss, came a transition in the manager’s game plan as he vetoed against signing a like-for-like replacement for the forward, instead trusting in Belgian wing wizard Dries Mertens and moving him into a central role. It is this tinkering of the squad which earned him much respect in Italy, with Mertens managing a total of 28 goals at the end of the 2016/17 season.

In terms of form, Sarri’s Napoli enjoyed purple patches in which the club made it to first position in the Italian Serie A, ahead of Juventus but they somehow capitulated towards the end of the season. In the end, the Italian left for Chelsea in 2018, having failed to lift a single trophy with Napoli despite the club having played some of the best football the fans had seen in the San Paolo Stadium.

London

The best managers always want to test themselves in the best competitions and leagues in the world. Maurizio Sarri is no different. He resigned at Napoli and switched to a West London club, Chelsea. To some, this was a shocking move considering the manager’s CV which lacked the critical factor - trophies. The Italian replaced Antonio Conte at Chelsea, who won the English Premier League and an FA Cup. Before him, Rafa Benitez had won the UEFA Europa League and Roberto Di Matteo won the UEFA Champions League. Despite all the success with the club, all of them were sacked by the owner of the club. Roman Abramovich has always been ruthless whenever he felt the club was not moving in the direction that he wanted hence the axe being called on these managers. The constant demand for success at the club and Sarri’s lack of contribution to the trophy cabinet at his previous clubs looked a mismatch. Nonetheless, the manager made his way to the club for the 2018/19 season.

Maurizio Sarri, Manager of Chelsea arrives prior to the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on October 20, 2018 in London, United Kingdom.  (Oct. 19, 2018 - Source: Clive Rose/Getty Images Europe

Maurizio Sarri, Manager of Chelsea arrives prior to the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on October 20, 2018 in London, United Kingdom.

(Oct. 19, 2018 - Source: Clive Rose/Getty Images Europe

Sarriball in England

Chelsea fans were over the moon when they beat Arsenal 3-2 at the Stamford Bridge on the 18th of August, 2018. They were not just happy about getting an edge over their rivals but also the style of football they witnessed in just their second English Premier League game under Maurizio Sarri. Having been used to defensive and counter-attacking football under Conte and Mourinho, it was probably their first time seeing their club dominate their opponents in terms of possession, shots on target, chances created, etc. This performance was followed by an electrifying run of form that saw Chelsea blowing teams away in the English Premier League. For a minute, I was convinced they would have a say in the title race. Sarriball proved to be working until Mauricio Pochettino delegated man-marking duties to Dele Alli in the match between Chelsea and Tottenham. Jorginho was followed by the England international all-game and stiffled Chelsea’s usual route of a quick transition. As a result, Chelsea succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Tottenham and everything went downhill from there.

The lack of consistency saw the club fall behind Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United at the turn of 2019. Contention among the Chelsea faithful grew at season-end due to Sarri’s stubborn decisions throughout the campaign. Many a times came where a switch in positioning between N’golo Kante and Jorginho were required but the manager stuck to his preferred tactics which saw them drop unnecessary points in the season run-in. The lack of flexibility in his game plan and the unpopular decision of moving Kante from his preferred defensive midfield position to a more attacking role left many heads shaking. Sitting in 6th position with 8 games left in the EPL, Sarri’s future looked bleak. However, they still managed to sneak into a 3rd place position ahead of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United thanks to a run of disappointing results from the aforementioned clubs. This league position masks the dreadful season that Chelsea have had. Also, it clouds the major issue of player management by Maurizio Sarri.

Sitting in 6th position with 8 games left in the EPL, Sarri’s future looked bleak. However, they still managed to sneak into a 3rd place position ahead of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United thanks to a run of disappointing results from the aforementioned clubs. This league position masks the dreadful season that Chelsea have had.
— Tinotenda Magiya, FirstTouch Africa

Player Management

The appointment of a new manager only means two things for football players; either business as usual or considering pastures anew. The latter has been the case for club captain Gary Cahill who captained the club in the title winning campaign just 2 seasons ago under Antonio Conte. Last season, he still played a significant role in their FA Cup run which yielded a trophy at the end of the 2017/18 season. This season, Cahill was frozen out of the team by Maurizio Sarri preferring David Luiz and Rudiger as the long-standing shields protecting the goal-line. The England international did not get any explanation from the manager and said, “I find it difficult to respect Sarri who has not respected what some of us have won with the club.” The defender was bitter about his treatment by the manager who has given him only 2 appearances in the English Premier League since his arrival and has not explained why he does not play as much as the other defenders.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek of Chelsea celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group L match between Chelsea and FC BATE Borisov at Stamford Bridge on October 25, 2018 in London, United Kingdom.  (Oct. 24, 2018 - Source: Clive Rose/Getty Images Europe)

Ruben Loftus-Cheek of Chelsea celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group L match between Chelsea and FC BATE Borisov at Stamford Bridge on October 25, 2018 in London, United Kingdom.

(Oct. 24, 2018 - Source: Clive Rose/Getty Images Europe)

Danny Drinkwater also faced the wrath of Sarri this season. The English Premier League winner with the Leicester team a couple of years back has been deemed surplus to requirements and has since been excluded from first team duties. There is no way back for Drinkwater and he must be ready to make a move come the end of the season if he is to revive his career at top flight football.

Apart from these two who received brutal treatment from the Chelsea coach, Ruben Loftus Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi have also been robbed off some crucial minutes in the first team this season. The Italian boss ignored the calls from the fans to play their academy products with the two being forced to watch from the stands despite their counterparts putting in poor performances. Kovacic and Barkley have not been reliable since the beginning of the season but Loftus Cheek was never seen in the mix until of late. The fans found it hard to understand why the manager could not make decisions that seemed obvious to them and left it late before they could see the midfielder being given a chance in his preferred advanced midfield role.

For Callum Hudson-Odoi, he had to submit a transfer request and push for a move to Bayern Munich before Sarri could realise that he had a talented teenager with potential to be a star in European football. All season, his defence when asked about the 18-year old was that he had to work on his defensive contribution yet he was barely given a chance to prove whether or not he had made progress. It seems as if the club forced Sarri to include @Calteck10 in the starting mix because the player was handed consecutive starting berths post the winter transfer window. He was unfortunate to pick up an Achilles injury which ruled him out for the rest of the season. It remains to be seen if the manager has changed his mind on these young players or whether the decisions were out of his hands. Nonetheless, the transfer ban imposed on Chelsea does not help his cause.

Kepa Arrizabalaga of Chelsea (C) celebrates victory in the penalty shoot out with team mates during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final Second Leg match between Chelsea and Eintracht Frankfurt at Stamford Bridge on May 09, 2019 in London, England.  (May 8, 2019 - Source: Getty Images Europe)

Kepa Arrizabalaga of Chelsea (C) celebrates victory in the penalty shoot out with team mates during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final Second Leg match between Chelsea and Eintracht Frankfurt at Stamford Bridge on May 09, 2019 in London, England.

(May 8, 2019 - Source: Getty Images Europe)

Chelsea’s Transfer Ban

Chelsea FC have been handed a ban that prevents them from buying players in the next two transfer windows. They were given an opportunity to appeal the decision but to no avail. FIFA have stood firm to the FFP rules which have allegedly been broken by the club’s approach to signing foreign U-18 players. That said, Chelsea are left helpless and will have to pull a rabbit out of the hat if they are to challenge for any trophies in the upcoming season. Maurizio Sarri came in late and had little preparations before the start of the 2017/18 season. He managed to get a few players in before the transfer window shut. Losing Cesc Fabregas to Monaco in January 2019 did not help as he was left with no adequate back-up to Jorginho. This provides a challenge for the Italian coach who was looking forward to the transfer window to get the players that suited his style of play. This means that Sarri has to put his trust in the current squad and the players from the youth academy. And that could potentially be the break that Chelsea needed after the owner Roman Abramovich changed his transfer policy in the past few years. He has since reduced his influence on the transfer market and somewhat follow the self-sustaining method that is growing popular in England.

Chelsea have an academy that sends out at least 20 players on loan every season. Possibly, it might be time for them to get a chance now that the club cannot go over Europe and identify the finished products. What’s certain is that Sarri will face a tough time to include young players in his plans because of his rigid philosophy.

Now what?

Chelsea are set to play Arsenal in the final of the UEFA Europa League on the 29th of May 2018. A win for them would mean another trophy added to their cabinet and something to mask their substandard performances all season. However, a defeat against Arsenal would not change much as they have already secured a UEFA Champions League spot for next season. Although Sarri might not be the ideal manager to integrate youth team players into his squad, it would still be a surprise if the club decides to sack him. He has not had enough time and resources to implement his philosophy. I think he has at least one more season at the helm of Chelsea FC.

What do you think?