Chelsea: Maurizio Sarri and expecting the unexpected

(Photo credit: Anonimo58)

After weeks of indecision and insecurity over Chelsea's immediate future, it looks as though Roman Abramovich has finally struck a deal to replace Antonio Conte with a new face - Maurizio Sarri.

The 59-year-old comes with a humble past, but a hefty reputation. A former bank manager, Sarri only moved into football management at the age of 40, working his way up through the Italian leagues before landing the Napoli job in 2015 after a fruitful spell with Empoli.

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Though Sarri leaves Naples with no trophies to his name, Napoli was his masterpiece. He created a devastatingly beautiful side, which pushed Juventus all the way in the race for the Scudetto. 'Sarri-ball' will be Calcio's loss and the Premier League's gain - but what exactly is it?


A fluid 4-3-3 set-up

Sarri favours an initial 4-3-3 formation, with players expected to interchange and cover in a fluid system. At Napoli, the star turns were his front three. Lorenzo Insigne played as an inside forward on the left, Dries Mertens in the centre, and Jose Callejon as an orthodox winger in attack.

REUTERS/Henry Romero 

Chelsea certainly have the players to flourish under Sarri, even before any transfers are confirmed. 

Eden Hazard is a perfect fit for the inside forward role and Willian is a consistent threat on the right, and while Alvaro Morata is a very different player to Mertens, he bears some similarities to former Napoli man Gonzalo Higuain - who scored 36 Serie A goals in his sole season under Sarri.

While 4-3-3 was the default, Napoli's shape changed considerably in different phases of the match. Sarri demands that his side build from the back, favouring a possession-oriented approach to open up spaces for sudden vertical balls forward and fast counter-attacks. 

Conte's 3-4-3 may endure


To orchestrate this, midfield pivot Jorginho - who appears to be following Sarri to Stamford Bridge - dropped in between the centre-backs, who moved wide with the full-backs hugging the touchline further up the pitch.

In essence, this meant that most moves started with Napoli in more of a 3-4-3 shape, a formation Chelsea are used to after two years of Conte.

When out of possession, Napoli utilised a high defensive line and intense pressing in order to force mistakes and win back possession quickly.

Closing down passing lanes and choking space, one of the wingers generally pushed up with Mertens to press as a pair, with a midfielder covering the space they had vacated; this left Napoli frequently operating in a 4-4-2 formation when out of possession, transitioning smoothly back into the 4-3-3 once the ball was recovered.

From the inside forward position on the left, Insigne notched 14 goals and 14 assists last season, with figures of 20 and 12 respectively the previous year.

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez 

Sarri helped establish him as one of the most dangerous attacking players in Europe, so the prospect of Hazard in a similar system should be cause for real excitement among Chelsea fans. It could even help persuade the Belgian to stay amidst reported interest from Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Though Sarri drills into his players the need for collective effort on and off the ball, he is not afraid to publicly praise his star men, a quality that players such as Hazard will surely appreciate. 


A tendency to go over the line

But the squad will want to stay in his good books. A hot-headed chain smoker, Sarri has been seen swearing at players, journalists, and Juventus fans, endearing himself to the Napoli faithful but raising questions about his temperament ahead of joining a club where his predecessor Conte seemed constantly at odds with Abramovich and sometimes with his players.

In 2016, he was banned for two games for homophobic comments. Earlier this year, he was forced to apologise after telling a female journalist, “You’re a woman, you’re beautiful, for those two reasons I won’t tell you to go f*** yourself.”

He is a man who can go too far.

At his best, Sarri is enigmatic, frequently controversial, and generally entertaining. You will likely have already seen some of Napoli's goals from the last couple of seasons, and you may have heard new rival Pep Guardiola describing him as "one of the world's best" when Napoli faced Manchester City in the Champions League.

Sarri and Guardiola certainly have their similarities.

Calcio legend Arrigo Sacchi described the pair as "two sons of the same idea", that football is "a form of art". Both see the concepts of entertaining, scoring goals, and winning matches as being irrevocably linked.


"A genius, a scholar"

Like Guardiola, Sarri isn't afraid to move a player into a different position if he feels he is being wasted. Mertens is the archetype of this. 

A formerly good-but-not-great winger was transformed into a centre-forward who notched 56 goals and 27 assists in the last two seasons. He should have been past his peak, having turned 31 earlier this year, but Sarri transformed him.

Successes like this help to explain why he was so loved by his players in Naples, with defender Kalidou Koulibaly describing him as "a genius... a scholar... he sees things others don't see. He makes you understand how football is and isn't unpredictable."

REUTERS/David Gray 

Sarri did this with relatively short but intense training sessions. At Empoli, he was rumoured to have drilled 33 different set-piece plays. 

This is the level of attention to detail that Sarri demands of himself, leaving no stone unturned in his quest to give his team the advantage. When Koulibaly headed in a stoppage-time corner to beat Juventus this season, the effort seemed worthwhile.

But Serie A is Serie A, and Juventus eventually prevailed. Sarri ended another season without knowing the feel of a trophy in his hands. He still, therefore, has plenty to prove. Chelsea is a good place for him to prove it; given that he has never spent more than three seasons at a club, it almost seems a perfect fit.

However long it lasts, however much silverware it brings, it is sure to be one hell of a ride.