There are few things that typify modern football more than the sight of a new manager holding up the royal blue shirt of Chelsea with a smile hijacked from a dismissed predecessor. The latest in the long list of post-millennial Blues’ managers is Maurizio Sarri, the former Napoli manager and messiah of football hipsters who became hypnotised by his ‘Sarri-ball’ brand of attacking football. Often classified as a defensive side, Sarri’s appointment may finally bring aesthetics to Chelsea’s trophy cabinet.
Written by Jack Colman (@JColman95)
Before introducing to the new man at the helm, it is worth dissecting what went wrong for Antonio Conte. Twelve months ago, Conte was arguably at the top of the world’s managerial tree. He had overcome a tricky start to life in London and won the Premier League at a canter after transforming Chelsea’s rigid 4-3-3 into a revolutionary 3-4-3, a formation which has since become a popular trend in England, on the continent and in international football. Conte had coached the likes of Victor Moses and Marcus Alonso into top-quality Premier League players as well as integrating Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Aké into the squad. The Italian could do no wrong.
Yet things soon turned sour. Conte’s plans for a summer of upgrading his squad started at the front, and he sent an infamous text to Diego Costa to let his star striker know that his time at Stamford Bridge was over. Such was the magnitude of that text, it was given as a primary reason for Conte’s dismissal over twelve months later. The breakdown in the relationship between him and the board was rapid, as Conte’s ambition in the transfer window was restricted by tight budget controls at the club. He wanted the likes of James Rodriguez, Virgil van Dijk, Alexis Sanchez, Alex Sandro and Romelu Lukaku. He got Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Davide Zappacosta and Alvaro Morata.
Such disappointment set the tone for the season, as the animated, passionate coach that we had seen the year before became gradually more passive on the side-lines. Shock defeats to Burnley, Watford, Bournemouth and Newcastle United were the low points of the season, but in reality, the season never truly kick-started. Conte’s press conferences were icy in tone and included frequent shards of complaint towards his employers. From a team that had been so unique and purposeful the year before, Chelsea’s identity disintegrated into a puddle of inconsistent team selection, poor individual performances and no ambition. The writing was on the wall for Conte and, despite an FA Cup win, his time at Stamford Bridge came to an eventual end this week.
No sooner that Conte had left SW6 came another Italian, with a trail of cigarette smoke in his wake. Serial smoker Maurizio Sarri finally found himself pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, after months of legal conversations and battles with his former president Aurelio De Laurentiis, and the task at hand became a reality in front of his eyes.
As aforementioned, the advantages of bringing Sarri to Stamford Bridge are obvious. During his time spent at both Empoli and Napoli, the 59-year-old became renowned for his expressive, attacking style of play, which was eventually coined as ‘Sarri-ball’ by journalists and Serie A experts alike. The tactic focuses on the constant movement of his midfielders and attackers to open up various passing lanes and move the ball at pace, which led to some beautiful team goals which frequently graced Twitter timelines and YouTube montages throughout Sarri’s three-year spell in Naples. Sarri was compared to Serie A icon Arrigo Sacchi, and was subject to praise by Pep Guardiola, who claimed that his Napoli side were one of the best that he had faced in his career.
The golden question is whether Sarri will be able to bring such a lavish style of play to this Chelsea squad. Whatever the answer is, it is undoubted that it will take time. As there was with Conte, there is likely to be a teething period for Sarri in which he ingrains his methods into the squad and adapts to the pace and nature of the Premier League. The signing of Jorginho, also from Napoli, is paramount for his early chances of success. The 26-year-old midfielder was the nucleus of Sarri’s squad last season and made more passes than any other player in Serie A (3,197) at an accuracy of 89.5%. If anybody understands Sarri’s style of play, it’s Jorginho, and we can expect to see the Italian-Brazilian act as Chelsea’s quarter-back this season.
If rumours are to be believed, Sarri is also keen on bringing more past acquaintances with him to SW6 in the near future, with Gonzalo Higuain and Daniele Rugani tipped for moves from Juventus. The former divides opinion, especially as he is into his thirties, yet his season with Sarri at Napoli was record-breaking and he was considered the best player in Serie A after scoring 36 goals. Yet, arguably more importantly, the current focus is on keeping Chelsea’s stars at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois seem to have all eyes on Madrid, whilst Barcelona have shown strong interest in N’Golo Kante. If the Blues lose any two out of those three, especially Hazard and/or Kante, then this summer will be a step backwards. It’s vital that Sarri can speak to them as soon as possible and convince them that Chelsea will be a successful place to be for the near future.
Other questions remain over the futures of David Luiz, Alvaro Morata and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who all possess potential to be stars in Sarri’s system but won’t second for being second best. The Italian’s track record for youth development was exceptional at Empoli but terrible at Napoli, so there are question marks over the strategy for the futures of Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi, among others. There are also doubts over Sarri’s ability to transform aesthetically pleasing football into trophies, but that’s just as much the fault of Juventus’ brilliance as his personal short-comings, and the Chelsea PR team will need to put in some hours to eradicate the politically-incorrect side of their new manager, which ran rampant in Serie A press conferences.
Chelsea never shy away from footballing drama, and the appointment of Sarri certainly maintains the combustible nature of the club’s managerial role. In the ideal world, the poetic football that captivated Naples and Guardiola will transfer seamlessly to West London, but we know football is never that simple. One thing we can be certain of is that it’s going to be a rollercoaster ride; after all, life is never dull at Stamford Bridge.