Talking Tactics: Chelsea’s ‘Sarri Show’ starts on the right foot
James Nalton was at the John Smith’s Stadium to witness Maurizio Sarri’s enjoyable first game in charge of Chelsea.
It feels like Maurizio Sarri has been asked more questions about tactics in his short tenure at Chelsea than other managers have in their entire Premier League career. This isn’t a bad thing, especially for columns such as this, but so far the questions posed seem to be around a similar theme.
Can he transfer the style he used in Italy to this Chelsea squad, and do they have the players for it to work?
One answer given in the press conference he attended after watching his side defeat Huddersfield by three goals to nil went some way to satisfying tactical minds and headline writers alike.
“I don’t want to do another Naples, I want to do a good Chelsea,” he said.
“I have to respect the characteristics of the players, and of the league,” he added. But regardless of what he says, the hallmarks of Sarri’s Napoli are starting to be seen in embryonic stages in this Chelsea lineup.
At times against Huddersfield these traits began to grow, flourish, and click into place, but the Italian himself admitted that this may have been because the opposition were tiring in the second half.
He told us that his plan for Eden Hazard was to use him off the bench when their opponents reached peak fatigue, and the Belgian came on to assist the third goal with a ruthless counter-attack, successfully putting his manager’s plan into action.
Like for like
In some areas, this Chelsea squad are upgrades on the players he had at Napoli. Cesar Azpilicueta, for example, is better than Elseid Hysaj at performing the role of solid right back who can also partake in build-up play.
N’Golo Kante, too, is one of the best in the world at the box-to-box position — often occupied by Allan in Naples — offering support to deep-lying playmaker Jorginho while also chipping in during attacks, as he did on Saturday when he scored the opening goal.
Sarri wasn’t taking any chances in the deep-lying role, showing how highly he regards Brazilian-born Italian international Jorginho by bringing him with him from Napoli for £57 million.
Hazard is one of few players who could perform the inside forward role on the left wing better than Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, and he’s already notched up an assist and six successful take-ons in just 14 minutes on the pitch. These numbers are better than most players will manage in a whole game, confirming his status as the best dribbler in world football.
Sarri is blessed with talent in these positions, and in other parts of his squad players can do a job similar to those he had at Napoli, even if they may take some time to adapt.
Time to adapt
He may not want Chelsea to be Napoli, but they will be Sarri.
“We have to improve to defend in the other half, to press, especially against three defenders,” he said after the game.
“We have to improve in moving the ball faster I think, because in the first half we didn’t. Better in the second, but in the second there was more space and time.”
Sarri admitted that he was caught out by the formation Huddersfield played, commenting that in the games he’d watched of theirs in pre-season, they hadn’t played the 5-3-1-1 which was on show today. It gave him an early lesson in playing against a Premier League low block, as Huddersfield defended well for the most part, and defended in numbers.
The image below shows the 5-3-2 formation Sarri spoke of, with Chelsea’s wide players sticking to the touchline to stretch the play.
His own team were disciplined in defence, but in attack the wide players roamed to help avoid some of their opposition’s more aggressive man-marking. Pedro darted across the pitch in the build-up to the first goal, and when Hazard came on he regularly joined Alvaro Morata up front.
There has been much debate as to how well Morata and Olivier Giroud will fit into this system, leading to suggestions that Hazard should replicate compatriot Dries Mertens’ conversion to a striker under Sarri at Napoli.
But when you have a player who is potentially the best in the world in this inside left position, then why would you play him elsewhere?
Morata linked up well enough, and he may find himself on the end of a few moments of Hazard magic throughout the season, as Pedro did here.
The difference between Sarri’s Chelsea and his Napoli side could lie up front, however, as he works with Morata and Giroud as he might have with Arkadiusz Milik, had the Pole become his main man up front at the San Paolo.
This 4-3-3 isn’t dissimilar to the ones used by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. Sarri requires a directness through quick passing in the half-spaces — those narrow corridors between the wings and the middle of the pitch — to release his attacking players on a subsequently isolated opposition defence.
The average positions from this game show a neat formation, showing that the players already know this system positionally, they just need to learn the intricacies, and have the bravery and technique to move the ball forward quicker.
The central defenders need to resist the urge to pass it between themselves and look more often for a full back, midfielder, or even a forward in front of them.
Room for improvement, says Sarri
With all his players now at his disposal, Sarri is looking forward to the next month, and getting his players drilled in Sarrismo before the cup competitions and international breaks kick in.
“We are lucky now because for three or four weeks we can work with only one match a week, and so we have to improve in this month,” he said.
The Italian will use this time on the training field to get his players up to scratch and embed new signings such as Kepa Arrizabalaga and Mateo Kovacic. If they can continue winning games 3-0 while not playing at their full potential, he’ll be more than happy.
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