With at least (if not a more) talented squad than he had at Napoli, Sarri in a matter of weeks has turned around a club known for its defensive prowess into a must watch team on any given day. The fact that more eyes may on The Blues than ever before may be odd given that they have twice won the Premier League in the past four seasons. That being said, the manner in which Guardiola’s playing from the back, with a possession-heavy attack will require a mammoth effort to even attempt to dethrone. In Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge and in Conte’s debut season with the club; pragmatic, defensive football took the helm. Attacking play from all possible angles was second fiddle to grinding out results. The hiring of Sarri showed that Chelsea board and ownership were looking to take the club in a different direction – one that they have wanted to do for some time now. City, Liverpool, and Tottenham (when on song) play the best football in England. They overwhelm opposition teams with a high press and relentless pressure. Sarri has done the same and looks to force Chelsea into the conversation that has left other major Premier League clubs in the dust.
Chelsea kicked off their season against Manchester City in the Community Shield. An over glorified friendly for one and the first of possibly many titles for the other. It was obvious that Chelsea were going to take time before getting into the grove of Sarri-ball. The same occurred during his spell at Napoli. The now 59-year-old spoke with his former employers and stated that his first few weeks at the Naples club were going to be ugly. Losses were to be expected but the light at the end of the tunnel would come to fruition only after the squad fully assimilated themselves to his style of play. And it was marvelous. While Napoli never won any silverware, they came as close as anyone has been in recent years to dethrone Juventus. Their 3-0 win against Huddersfield to open their Premier League campaign was expected. In both matches, Sarri-ball had shown its flashes. There was even his trademark kickoff that made its Premier League debut against Huddersfield. All but two of their outfield players were on the halfway line. Only Rudiger – who was positioned as a holder to receive the back pass – David Luiz were positioned in an orthodox manner.
Sarri has also removed any and all signs of the three-center-back system that his compatriot, Antonio Conte, employed to win the Premier League. Half the league tried to imitate this last season though this was never going to be more than just a short-lived trend. Conte’s back three was never going to work in the long run. The fact that David Luiz and Gary Cahill were both able to play consistently for a season to lead one of the best defensive lineups two seasons ago. Moving to a back four was always going to be their best option. Azpilicueta is no more a right-sided center back and is back to playing in his more natural position as a right back. Not that he cannot function as a central defender (he’s one of the most versatile defenders in the world and the second coming of Philipp Lahm) but his intelligent runs and ability to compliment is wingers are ridiculously underrated. His countryman, Marcos Alonso, is not a charging left wing-back but a charging left back. David Luiz has now transformed into a competent center back. After being a poor man’s Sergio Ramos, the skilled passer is back to being a solid defensive player.
There are still plenty of decisions that Sarri has to make. Never a man known for rotating his players, he now has the deepest roster that he has ever worked with. There are plenty of decent players who are on the fringes of the starting XI. Victor Moses reinvented himself as a stellar wingback under Sarri’s predecessor after playing for virtually every Premier League team as a loanee. Zappacosta is also in contention with Moses as the backup right back or will the two of them have to reinvent themselves (again) as wingers. Gary Cahill is still the Chelsea captain and the 32-year-old has only played one league game. How much time on the pitch is he set to have with Luiz, Rudiger, and Christensen being ahead of him in the pecking order? This is not even including Azpilicueta in the conversation. Marcos Alonso is excellent going forward though he has shown tendencies to switch off defensively and lacks the desire to track back. Is his still their No. 1 option though Emerson is knocking on the door after being a promising talent with Roma. Danny Drinkwater is still under the Chelsea payroll. He was brought to add squad depth though he is his best when playing for a coach who makes use of long balls. Neither Conte nor Sarri use the long ball as a weapon. Even if is he is to adapt to his new managers’ philosophy there is no scenario in which he even appears to dent the Jorginho-Kante-Kovacic midfield. And he will even be behind Ross Barkley, Fabregas, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the pecking order. Forget playing in the Premier League, Drinkwater will struggle to find himself on the pitch during the League Cup.
Speaking of the midfield, this will be the one area of the park that will define Chelsea for the coming seasons. From Day One, it has been confirmed that Sarri will opt for placing Jorginho in the holding role in a three-man midfield. This was expected as Jorginho played in the same position during his Naples tenure though this put Kante’s role in question. The diminutive Frenchmen is one of the best defensive midfielders in the role. He excelled under Conte and his defensive-minded approach to the game. This role does not exist anymore in this iteration of The Pensioners. Sarri has instead opted to have an excellent passer in Jorginho that better suits his possession-based attacking football. Kante so far has played on the right side of the pitch in a significantly higher position. He is a workhorse and the engine that allows Chelsea to shine. Kante has accepted his new role with grace though he may find himself to be out of his league. He is at his most effective when he’s running from box-to-box and breaks up attacking play in front of his backline. So far he’s averaged a touch under 52 passes per game with a completion rate of 88.4 percent with one key pass per game. This has held up so far though it was only going to be tested against Liverpool, another team whose intensity matches that of the new look Chelsea. In their league fixture, he completed 82% of his passes. Sarri has gifted Kovacic, a much better dribbler in Ross Barkley, and an elder statesman in Fabregas is capable of killer passes in the final third. This trio will pose more questions on Sarri should Kante struggle in a more advanced role. He’s done an admirable job so far. Though getting the balance of his midfield may ultimately decide if Sarri can lead the club to silverware.
Like the front-three that excelled in Naples, Sarri has the luxury of having Eden Hazard, Pedro, and Willian. The veteran Italian is not known for the development of young talent but the 17-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi. He was left out of Chelsea’s Europa league fixture and this could have been the one competition where he could have gotten consistent game time to impress Sarri. Morata is still a member of Chelsea though he is anything but a guaranteed starter. Olivier Giroud has been their starting No. 9 and excels in hold up play that compliments Hazard’s skill set. The World Cup Winner is a poor man’s Benzema to Hazard’s Ronaldo. Tammy Abhram is forward who provides depth option for Sarri and might get a run of games during the Cup Competitions. If all else fails, Hazard can always be played centrally in a false nine role. His compatriot – Dries Mertens – found the form of his life in a central role after spending much of his career as a winger. The La Louviere native is at his best when he is on the flanks and is allowed to use his blistering pace along the channels.
Somehow, a roster that spent the past five years playing with a defensive mindset, they have a surprisingly balanced side that has the best of youth and experience. Sarri has gotten off to an excellent start to his Chelsea tenure and this was only because he could have taken the club in any direction. The irony in all of this is that Europe is not a real priority for the club. The Europa League is second fiddle to the Champions League and to the Premiership. He’s gotten off to an undefeated start to his first Premier League run and is only two points behind league leaders Manchester City. Toppling the Citizens is part of the plan for this season. A top-four finish is their goal as they look to shrug off the theatrics that marred Conte and Mourinho before him. Also, the fact that they are playing exciting football that has clicked instantly is remarkable for a coach who normally takes a few months to assimilate himself into a new club. One of the Top Six took a complete 180 and turned from a defensive stalwart to one of the most expansive and progressive clubs in club football. This should be a sign to the other goliaths that this can be done and it will be for the better.