In the late 1990s, Maurizio Sarri was a banker for the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, more commonly referred to as BMPS. When working for the Italian bank, recognised as one of the oldest in the world, he travelled to Zurich, Luxembourg and was briefly based in London. Two decades later, Sarri is back in England’s capital and coaching Chelsea.
As a player, Sarri was a defender who failed to make the grade. He had trials at Fiorentina and Torino, but was unsuccessful in both. While lining out for southern based amateur side Figline at 19, he almost signed a professional contract with now defunct Montevarchi, but the deal fell through. A litany of injuries then forced him to retire prematurely and give up on his dream.
Despite that, his love of the game remained undiminished. He worked during the day and coached at night and weekends. In 2001, he gave up his job as a banker to pursue management full-time. His first gig was at small Tuscan club Sansovino and they earned promotion into Serie D at the first time of asking. That success attracted the attention of Serie C2’s Sangiovannese, where he remained for two years.
Sarri’s big break was in 2005 when he was appointed coach of Serie B side Pescara. He stayed there for a season, helping them avoid relegation. In a weird quirk, Sarri then joined Arezzo, replacing Antonio Conte before Conte returned in his place the following season.
Sarri made his way through the divisions in a succession of jobs before a spell at Empoli which earned him plaudits. In 2015, his career reached its zenith when he became coach of his hometown club Napoli. Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis recalls the first time he met Sarri. “[Sarri] said: ‘President, let me do it my way. We’ll maybe lose the first seven games but then the results will start to come, you’ll see’. I told him I’d sack him after three defeats.”
In the end, it never came to that. Sarri transformed an under-performing, dour Rafa Benitez team into mesmeric, swashbuckling entertainers. Results came as well. Napoli finished second in his first season and Gonzalo Higuain bagged a Serie A record 36 goals, having previously failed to reach 20 for the club. When Higuain was sold to Juve, one of Sarri’s key tactical alterations was moving Dries Mertens into a central attacking position and he was rewarded with the best form of the Belgian’s life. They achieved this with the fifth highest budget too, an indication of how much they were punching above their weight.
No one has come closer to ending Napoli’s 28 year title drought or Juventus’ seven year hold on the Scudetto than Sarri. Last year, Napoli earned a club record 90 points, a total that would’ve won them the title in seven of the previous nine seasons. They won plenty of admirers in the process, including Pep Guardiola, who was gushing in his praise.
“Beating Napoli twice in two weeks is an incredible achievement. They are perhaps the best side I’ve faced in my career.”
Guardiola and Sarri are friends, famously meeting up for dinner alongside legendary former Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi during the summer. They are very much cut from similar cloth and attempt to set their team up in the same way. Both want to dictate the ball and press high from the front, both expect their goalkeeper to be able to play and their defenders to pass.
The hope at Chelsea must be that Sarri can replicate the liquid football played by his Napoli side. There were signs in pre-season of what he expects, but whether he gets the patience required for his methods to take shape from the notoriously trigger happy Chelsea board is another thing.
The addition of Jorginho in midfield should aid the process and, assuming they can retain Eden Hazard, they will hopefully get in tune to what Sarri demands and produce comparable football to that of Napoli. If he can, the Premier League and English football are in for a treat.
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Also published on Medium.