Chelsea officially appointed Maurizio Sarri on the 14th July 2019, just 4 weeks before the first Premier League game of the season. The links between Chelsea and Sarri had been going on for months, and it was Marina Granovskaia’s reluctance to pay his release clause, which stood at £7m, that saw Sarri given a ridiculously short time to get to know his players, have a preseason, and prepare them for the opening game away at Huddersfield. The appointment came so late in fact, that Antonio Conte turned up to take training on the first two days of preseason, even though it was widely known he’d be sacked.
“In Naples, I was able to have a pre-season with 60 training sessions for the defensive line. Here I had about 11 or 12 sessions in the first period. So that’s a big difference.”Maurizio Sarri when asked about his first season at the club
It’s this quote from Sarri which really gives an insight into how challenging it was to be thrown into the job so late on in the summer. 48 less training sessions on just defending, missed out on because he came into the job so late. In his first season at Napoli he took them from 5th to 2nd, conceding 32 goals compared to 54 in the previous year. He also increased their points tally by 19. That improvement was based on having time to work on the training pitch on their defensive shape (60 sessions), in those first few weeks of his appointment. Now compare that to Chelsea having just 12 training sessions on the defensive line, and you start to appreciate just how much of a struggle it has been for Sarri to get his message across to his players.
Marcos Alonso recently said that they’ve been trying their best to implement his ideas, but playing every three days makes it difficult to have time for Sarri to fully get across what he wants from them. I’ve seen many ‘Sarri Out’ people suggest that there should be no problem, after all, Conte changed the system seamlessly in his first season. What many fail to realise is the reality of the situations. Antonio Conte didn’t have any midweek games, apart from a rare Carabao Cup game, so he was able to drill his ideas into them for a solid week before each game.
Some people may be uneducated on the reality of how long Chelsea have to prepare for a match. If they play on a Sunday and then a Wednesday, the first XI who played will have a light session on the Monday, before two sessions on the Tuesday, and then it’s matchday. That’s simply not enough time to get across all of your ideas fully, and we’ve seen that throughout the season, with particularly busy periods coinciding with some of our worst form. Sure, it’s enough time to get across elements of your philosophy, but not all of it. And that’s shown in Chelsea’s performances this season.
Staying with Chelsea’s struggle to implement Sarri’s ideas fully, I’d ask you to watch the above clip. There’s very clear parallels to draw from what that supporter had to say and what the Sarri Out fans are saying now. They complain about the style, the same as in this clip. They call for more defensive coaches, the same as in this clip. They ask Sarri to change his style, the same as in this clip.
To those who will say that Sarri isn’t on Pep’s level, you’re right. But there’s a reason why Guardiola praised Sarri and it’s down to how he likes to play and how he gets his teams to play, given time.
Now, let’s focus on what’s actually happened this season. Chelsea have finished 3rd in the Premier League, got to the Carabao Cup final, losing on penalties to the now back to back Champions of England, and are in the Europa League final in Baku.
On the face of it, that’s a good season, even by Chelsea’s standards, but as is always the case, there’s more to uncover. I’ve asked some people who are Sarri Out, what their concerns have been this season, and I’m going to look a little bit further into them below.
“Sarri is tactically inflexible”
True. You can’t dispute that one. But you can explain it.
Maurizio Sarri was brought in to change the style of play. We’re not talking about a tiny tweak. This is an astronomical change of the Chelsea way, from a defensive, counter-attacking style to a more creative, possession based game. Sarri has chosen to do that by playing his rigid 433, with his deep lying playmaker in Jorginho, at the base of his midfield. It’s what gave him success with Napoli (which for them isn’t trophies, but going from 5th to challenging for the league) and he’s tried to bring that to Chelsea. It was always going to take time, and it has done, and will continue to.
There’s been shouts from the Sarri Out brigade that he should play to this squad’s strengths. That’s what all good managers do, isn’t it? But, this squad’s strength is playing defensive football, the exact style he was brought in to get away from. So Sarri going back to a three at the back system was never remotely realistic. If you want to blame anyone, blame Marina Granovskaia for bringing a manager in to change a style, without having the necessary players in the squad to do it.
Sarri won’t change his tactics, and he can’t if he wants to have any chance of seeing Chelsea play his style to the standard of his Napoli team.
“His reluctance to rotate and play youth is worrying”
At the start of the season, that would be a very valid argument. Up until around February, Sarri had stuck with his core group of 14 players and tried to get them to play his style. However, constantly rotating a team is never going to work if you want to get them playing well together and quickly.
It definitely took too long, but from April onwards, we saw a huge improvement from Sarri in his flexibility with lineups and playing the youth. Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek emerged as first choice starters, and Sarri’s rotation problems quickly diminished. I have to say, that the lack of quality in the Chelsea squad has most definitely stopped him from wanting to rotate from his core of 14 players, and that comes down to the board not signing players of a good enough quality for Chelsea.
“He doesn’t have a relationship with the fans”
This is definitely true, but some Chelsea fans are blinded by previous managers. All of our title winning managers, in Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte had a great relationship with the Chelsea faithful and that, in my opinion is why we’re seeing a dislike among many fans towards Sarri. It’s ingrained in people’s minds that with every great manager comes a noticeable passion and relationship with the fans, and that isn’t necessarily the mark of a good manager. I’d insert Rory Jennings’ ‘He isn’t a Chelsea man’ rant if I could stand him.
Maurizio Sarri certainly hasn’t gone out of his way to build a relationship with the fans, and that is certainly an issue, but it’s not one that diminishes his philosophy or ideas as a manager.
So, what are my thoughts on Sarri’s first season at Chelsea?
There’s certainly been ups and downs, and Sarri has had a part to play in the failings of this season, but he isn’t fully to blame. Yes, he’s made poor substitutions, refused to change his style, even in a game, but he’s had to deal with having an inadequate squad and the toxic atmosphere of portions of Stamford Bridge booing him and calling for him to be sacked.
There’s been problems that Sarri has caused and problems that he hasn’t caused, but overall I don’t think you can look past the fact that he’s achieved his target of Champions League football, got us to two cup finals, and has the chance to win the Europa League.
Maurizio Sarri deserves another season, with a full pre-season, proper time to prepare and then and only then can we judge him fully. It’s been a very mixed first season, but one that has shown enough promise for him to continue next year.
Let’s just back him and win him his first trophy on the 29th May.
Up The Chels!