Monday 19 August 2019

Workaholic Sarri hired to entertain

Newcastle United v Chelsea, Sky Sports, 4.0

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: PA
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: PA

Jason Burt

It was only in the hours after Chelsea's 3-2 Premier League victory over Arsenal last Saturday evening that Maurizio Sarri allowed himself some time off. Even then it was just a few precious hours. Remarkably, it was the first time since he arrived at Chelsea as their new head coach that Sarri had even ventured into central London.

So the 59-year-old Italian walked for miles from Stamford Bridge through the streets as he headed towards the centre of the city, his thoughts only disturbed by the fans of his former club, Napoli, who he left in the summer - rather than those of Chelsea - who recognised him along the way.

"I found a lot of people of Naples," Sarri said, laughing, at Chelsea's training ground in Surrey where his command of English is already impressive. "I have spent only one day in London in 40 days here . . . We had to prepare the season without players, so it was difficult the first part of the season for me. But I'm not able to switch off, me. Never. I am thinking always about my team and about the match, or the next match. It's my way to work in football."

Sarri may well be always thinking. But it is the Chelsea players - and the defenders, in particular - who have been set the challenge of adapting to 'Sarri-ball'. And how they need to think differently, to completely change their mindset, their approach and the way they play, to achieve that.

Sarri's style of intense pressing, playing a high defensive line, dominating possession and moving the ball quickly can be hugely entertaining but it's also demanding and does not come without risks - as Chelsea found out against Arsenal when they conceded two goals and could have conceded more as they looked unsure at times.

It is a significant shift from the 3-5-2 operated by Antonio Conte built on solid defence and quick counter-attack, with Sarri insisting he will never play with five defenders, having attempted it earlier in his coaching career only to find "it's not my way". Owner Roman Abramovich has always craved a brand of 'fantasy football' with a clear, creative identity and Sarri has been charged with delivering it.

In fact, Sarri conceded it may take up to three months for his ideas to work at Stamford Bridge and although there is an expectation that he will be given time, it is a tightrope walk. "Because it's not so easy to change the mind," Sarri explained. "If you are used to defending by looking at the man, and I ask you to defend by looking only at the ball, I think if you are 18 it's maybe easier. If you are 28 and, for 10 years, you've played the other way, it's not so easy."

The idea is to press the opponent for the full 90 minutes by hunting the ball down and worrying less about the movement of the opponent. But is that not too demanding? "No. I don't think so," Sarri insisted. "If you defend forward, you only have to do 10 metres, 15 metres. If you have the ball inside, you have to be back for 50 metres. So I think we can press for 90 minutes, only if we have the right distances between the players, we stay very high.

"Otherwise it's a problem, of course. In the last part of the first half against Arsenal we lost distances, so it was impossible to press and recover the ball. We were immediately in trouble. But I think we can do it for 90 minutes."

It is a different way. Chelsea have switched to a 4-3-3 formation and are, in the revolutionary manner in which Pep Guardiola changed Manchester City, almost a 'live' experiment. Sarri has been lauded as the best coach in Europe by Guardiola, and there is a key to why Chelsea and Abramovich hired him: he wants to entertain.

"It's important if I like it, first of all," Sarri said. "I want to enjoy, I want to have fun, press the ball. Then, if I enjoy the game, maybe the supporters enjoy the game. And I think that, if the team enjoy the game, they have a lot of opportunities to win the match."


The Throw-In All-Ireland Hurling Final preview: Can Tipp's firepower edge clash with the Cats?

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport