Friday 20 September 2019

Sarri needs to get Blues fired up with quick start

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Nick Miller

Maurizio Sarri spent most of his first Premier League game in charge of Chelsea pacing around the touchline at Huddersfield as his charges kicked off their new campaign with an easy 3-0 victory.

Whereas Antonio Conte resembled a perpetual road rage sufferer, Sarri's demeanour is more controlled agitation, a little like a man waiting for an important phone call that he thinks might bring bad news.

He constantly fiddled with something in his hand, which every now and then he brought up to his mouth.

An enthusiastic smoker, it's probably a filter or a little piece of plastic to stand in for a cigarette, as a sort of comforter in the same way that Johan Cruyff used to suck lollipops.

But he was keeping quiet about what it actually was: after the game, he smiled bashfully and shook his head when a journalist enquired.

You can't blame him for feeling nervous. This is a man who has been charged with reinvigorating a team who looked lost and listless last term, having taken over with pre-season already underway, and only able to work with his best players for a few days after they returned from their World Cup exertions.

Kepa Arrizabalaga in action during his Chelsea debut against Huddersfield. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Kepa Arrizabalaga in action during his Chelsea debut against Huddersfield. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

His is a style - 'Sarri ball', as we're apparently obliged to call it - that takes time to absorb.

And he's doing it all at a club not known for their patience, a club who have burned through nine permanent managers and four caretakers in the 15 years before he arrived.

This week he warned that it might take until the second half of the season for his team to become what he wants them to be: that's a timeframe that you suspect won't be acceptable to his superiors, but they were words designed to temper expectations.

Sarri needs his ideas to take over the coming month, or else he could be in some trouble.

Time is a factor, but it might be less a case of Chelsea giving him that time, more him quickly imparting what he wants from his team. That's why the next few weeks will be the most important of his tenure.

He needs time on the training field and, with a relatively forgiving schedule between now and the first international break of the season, in the second week of September, that time is now, glorious uninterrupted midweeks stretching out before him.

After that, the punishing grind of weekend-midweek-weekend games will leave time for little else other than the cycle of preparation, playing and recovery.

"We are lucky now because for three or four weeks, we can work with only one match a week," he said.

"We have to improve in this month, then it might be difficult with the three matches in a week. I hope in this month to improve the team."

Hope is probably putting in mildly.

The good news for Sarri is that there were glimpses of what he's looking for in this match.

Chelsea had spells of the rapid, one-touch passing that was so important to his success at Napoli. They hunted the ball down, made rapid attacking runs, and looked genuinely threatening. Only glimpses, though.

"We have to improve in moving the ball faster, I think," he said. "In the first-half we didn't. We did it better in the second, but in the second, there was more space and time."

Sarri spent much of that first-half barking at his players to quicken their passing, telling Alvaro Morata to close down quicker, and just generally do things at twice the pace.

And then he'd bring whatever that comforting item in his hand is up to his mouth, and go back to pacing.

He might have a group of players who are so good they can automatically win just enough games to buy some time, until the ideas and his style set in.

As long as you don't do anything too stupid, a team that contains Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante, supported by Willian and Jorginho, will be good enough to beat 14 of the other 19 teams in the league, at least.

"Sometimes mentality beats quality, but today the quality was too big," said Huddersfield manager David Wagner.

There was enough in this victory, against admittedly limited opposition, to suggest that Sarri can do what Chelsea need him to. That's the theory, anyway.

It's now a race against time to see if he can turn theory into practice.

If not, he'll need all the comfort that whatever he carries around with him can bring. (© Independent News Service)

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