Chelsea: 2018/19 Premier League Preview
Creator of one of Europe’s most entertaining sides last season, Maurizio Sarri arrives at Stamford Bridge looking to champion a new era of Chelsea football.
Action Images via REUTERS/Paul Childs
After a strange and unedifying summer, Chelsea finally jettisoned Antonio Conte in favour of Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri last month. The former investment banker has a tough job at Stamford Bridge, starting with the need to convince wantaway stars such as Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard to stay.
All eyes will be on the Italian as he attempts to transpose the style that won him so many admirers in Naples and return Chelsea to the Champions League.
2017/18 Season Review
Chelsea finished fifth in the Premier League, a summit which fails to put any gloss on their FA Cup win the same year. It was a remarkable climb down from the successes of the previous season, when Conte’s 3-4-3 swept aside all comers in a devastating campaign.
In a season of middling performers, the usual figures stood out. Cesar Azpilicueta was rugged and consistent, whilst Eden Hazard struggled gamely in a front line that lacked conviction.
However, when Chelsea players have a fallout with the manager, they make it known in their performances, such as the 3-0 defeat away to Bournemouth, the 4-1 away defeat to Watford and 3-0 away loss to Newcastle on the final day of the campaign.
Signings such as Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko failed spectacularly to pay off, setting the tone for a year of discontent which ended just weeks ago with Conte’s departure.
Fee: £57 million
Sarri’s first signing at the Bridge and perhaps the most important. A player capable of controlling the game’s tempo, he is expected to retain possession and kick-start the attacking phases of play sitting at the base of the three-man midfield.
Jorginho is the champion of ‘Sarri-ball,’ hence the Italian’s decision to bring him to Stamford Bridge from under Manchester City’s noses.
Fee: Free transfer
Despite the inevitable tittering on social media, this is a move that makes sense. Chelsea have secured an experienced, international goalkeeper on a free transfer, one who is better and more sensible than Willy Caballero and who, given his age, will be happy to accept a supporting role.
Green may not get much playing time, but he offers a wise and knowledgeable head in a dressing room that lacked leaders last term.
As ever, a litany of loan stars have departed West London in search of first-team football. Kenedy rejoins Rafa Benitez and Newcastle, whilst the promising Mason Mount decamps for Frank Lampard’s Derby County.
At the time of writing, Mario Pasalic is the highest-profile departure, but rumours continue to link Willian, Hazard and Courtois with a move away. Any one of those deals being concluded could be a disaster for Sarris’ revolution.
Sarri built his reputation on one way of playing and he’ll deploy the same 4-3-3 formation that has brought him so much success at Napoli and Empoli. By almost every metric, the Neapolitans were the most effective attacking side in Italy last year, the fruits of a system which emphasises rapid transitions and short, clipped passing.
‘Sarrismo’ eschews long balls and clearances in favour of building intricately from the back. Whoever starts at centre-back for Chelsea will be expected to act as the side’s first midfielder, a job that Kalidou Koulibaly did with such aplomb last year.
Wingbacks will be expected to propel forward in attack, offering width and incision to a stable midfield trio and inside forwards.
Sarri found much success with a nimble centre forward in Dries Mertens, but given the relative lack of pace in the Chelsea frontline, he could be minded to start with Olivier Giroud as a hard-working reference point up top. Should he stay, Hazard could offer an interesting alternative through the middle.
The Key Question: Will Eden Hazard stay?
For all the talk of whether Sarrismo can transplant successfully from Italy, the discussion will be rendered moot should the Belgian depart.
He is that vital to the club’s chances, and the risk of his leaving has only grown on the back of a wondrous World Cup in Russia. The new management should be throwing everything at him to stay.
If he was to go, however, Chelsea may have discovered his future replacement. Callum Hudson-Odoi has shone in pre-season, no more so than against Arsenal where he terrorised Hector Bellerin.
He’s only 17-years-old and it’s a lot of pressure to put on young shoulders, but Sarri has confirmed that he’ll be staying with the club this season, and we could be seeing a lot more of him.
Second place. Sarri’s fluid, frenetic style finds a natural home, and is bested only by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Another year outside the Champions League. Given Roman Abramovich’s historical disregard for managers, it could mean the end of Sarri’s English holiday before it even starts.
A return to the Champions League and a domestic cup final.
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