Thursday 15 November 2018

Kevin Palmer: 'Why the jury is yet to come to a verdict on Chelsea's revival under Maurizio Sarri'

Maurizio Sarri is on a winning streak with Chelsea (Mike Egerton/PA)
Maurizio Sarri is on a winning streak with Chelsea (Mike Egerton/PA)
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Maurizio Sarri has admitted he is well ahead of schedule in his Chelsea revolution, after he predicted it would take him a full year to get players singing to his tune.

Patience always appeared to be required for Sarri to change Chelsea's DNA from a brand of rigid counter-attacking football that served predecessors Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte so well, yet the speed of his transformation has taken the latest incumbent in the Blues hot-seat by surprise.

This former banker who had never worked outside of Italy during his unconventional rise to the top of football management has revealed he told Chelsea bosses that they would not see the best of his new-look team until 2019 as both he and his players needed time to find harmony, but that clock has now been wound back.

"I told the people here it would take time and this was not just an attempt to make life easier for me," declares Sarri. "We were trying to change a lot of things and normally this takes time. I thought maybe one full season to get everything the way I like. I still feel we have a long way to go, but the results show we are moving in a good direction."

Sarri's caution is predictable, but the statistics confirm his impact has been immediate.

Chelsea will head into this weekend's Premier League fixtures just two points behind leaders Manchester City, with their unbeaten record all the more impressive given the style change Sarri has successfully overseen.

After inheriting a host of problems that included a requirement to change his keeper, convince star man Eden Hazard to stay and find a way to close a 30-point gap Manchester City opened up on Chelsea last season, Sarri is well on his way to defying logic in double quick time.

THE FORMATION

Sarri says: "I thought we would be in big trouble for my first two months here. I came in so close to the start of the season, we had problems with World Cup players coming back late, but the players have worked out how to win without the organisation we will have soon. It has surprised me. We are ahead of where I thought we would be now."

Sarri favours a 4-3-3 formation, yet bringing David Luiz (below) out of the wilderness he had been plunged into by Conte last season and inserting him at the heart of a two man central defence appeared to be a risky move.

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David Luiz, pictured, is an integral figure for Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri after falling out of favour under Antonio Conte (John Walton/PA Images)

Conte got the best out of Luiz when he switched to a back three, but the Brazilian's concentration lapses and tendency to give the ball away has left some to conclude he would undermine Sarri's attempts to revive his career and yet he has kept things simple in a polished start to the season.

Sarri's philosophy is built around his team building their attacks from the back with fast movement and in Luiz, he has a player who has been the starting point of that attacking approach.

Keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has made an encouraging start to his Chelsea career after his £71m move from Atletico Bilbao and even though the 24-year-old has played just 63 top flight matches in Spain and England, he has the air of a keeper destined for the top.

This new formation also appears to have offered up space for Hazard to return to top form, as he has been the Premier League's most effective player so far this season, while summer arrivals Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic have added quality to a midfield lacking flair last season.

CONSISTENCY OF SELECTION

Sarri says: "I believe in picking the same players if they are in good for and winning, so there has been no big need to change. What I know is we have good players waiting for a chance and that time will come."

New managers often take time to select their best team as they get to grips with the players they have inherited, but Sarri has quickly identified his main men and stuck with them.

Luiz, Marcos Alonso, Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta have started every Premier League game in Sarri's back four, N'Golo Kante has been an ever present in midfield, while Willian has started all but two Premier League games.

The only fluid position in his line-up has been his choice of lead striker, with Alvaro Morata starting seven league games and Olivier Giroud the other four.

Manchester United, Newcastle and Fulham are among the teams the have made more than 20 changes to their starting line-ups in the opening two months of the season, but Sarri has used just 14 players from the start of Premier League games and that consistency of selection appears to have helped their fluidity.

SARRIBALL

Sarri says: "I want a team to keep the ball and express themselves. My aim is always to play football that makes people smile."

Much was made of the brand of football Sarri would bring to Chelsea, with Conte's Blues mastering the art of maximising the limited opportunities they created in what was, essentially, a rigid team structure that came with a safety first stamp.

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Antonio Conte won the Premier League in his first season as Chelsea head coach (Mike Egerton/PA Images)

Conte relied on his team hitting opponents on the break and it was no surprise that they finished in fifth place in the passing statistics last season with (21,264), a long way behind Manchester City's mesmeric benchmark that saw them make 28,241 passes en-route to the Premier League title.

The figure from this campaign confirm Sarri's influence at Chelsea has been immediate as heading into this weekend's Premier League games, the Blues are top of the passing charts with a figure of 8,018, well ahead of Pep Guardiola's City (7,561).

Sarri's philosophy has also seen Chelsea up their possession stats from an average of 54.4% last season to a 62.7% average this season, allowing them to claim second spot in that statistics table.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Sarri says: "At the moment, I can only see City or Liverpool winning the Premier League. We were 30 points behind the champions last season and it is difficult to recover this distance at the first attempt. We have big improvements to make before we can think about the title."

It's hard to imagine a side winning the biggest prize in English football without one of their leading strikers scoring at least 15 goals, yet there is a very good chance Chelsea's two forwards will not reach that target.

Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata are frontmen that contribute to a team rather than score goals by the dozen themselves, with Chelsea's reliance on Eden Hazard leaving them open to a slump in form if their No.10 is absent for a sustained period.

Of all the teams in the Premier League's top four, Chelsea have an over-reliance on one player that would be undermined if Hazard picked up an injury as while the form of Ross Barkley has caught the eye in recent weeks, the England midfielder would not fill the Hazard void if he was missing from big games against Tottenham and Manchester City in the next month.

Sarri's Premier League story is still in its infancy and while their unbeaten start to the Premier League season signifies significant progress, judgement on whether they are genuine title contenders needs to be reserved for now.

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