Most managers are defined solely by their results. Winning games makes them good; losing games makes them bad. But when assessing the performance of someone whose job often revolves primarily around work on the training ground, it’s worth taking into account how their work affects performance. From this angle, ignoring results, it’s clear that Maurizio Sarri is a good manager. This was most obvious during his start to life at Napoli, where he transformed a team’s style of play, as well as the fortunes of several individual careers, for the better, in a short timeframe.
Taking charge of Napoli in June 2015, within four months Sarri had implemented his footballing principles, decided on a formation that would ultimately remain in place until he left earlier this year, and rejuvenated a number of players. Kalidou Koulibaly, previously error-prone and cumbersome in possession, became one of the finest ball-playing central defenders in the world; Jorginho, previously a fringe squad member, became Italy’s playmaking heir to Andrea Pirlo; Lorenzo Insigne went from producer of the occasional magical moment to one of Serie A’s most consistent attackers; and Gonzalo Higuain went from one goal every two games to one goal per game.
There were valid question marks over whether Sarri could make a similarly fast start at Chelsea this season. He was only made Head Coach in July, less than one month before the new Premier League campaign got underway. He also had to deal with the fact that this is a World Cup year, and a number of his key players would not be immediately available to him in pre-season. Throw in a lack of major signings – only one addition was made within his first month in charge, his old friend Jorginho joining from Napoli – and it would have been fair to expect a struggle ahead for the Italian tactician. But this has not been the case.
Nine days after Sarri’s appointment, Chelsea played Perth Glory in a friendly. In that match there were already signs of ‘Sarriball’: Antonio Conte’s 3-4-2-1 had been replaced by a 4-3-3, the defensive line and pressing was much higher, and there was greater onus placed on building possession from the back. All of these aspects were once again on show as Chelsea defeated Huddersfield 3-0 in their opening Premier League fixture of the season. Almost everything that made Napoli so watchable and effective over the last three seasons has, with disconcerting speed, been transferred to Chelsea. And yet Sarri believes the process could potentially have been even quicker. When asked how long it would take for his side to play their best football, he stated: “It’s not been easy for me at the moment. Hopefully two months and not three.”
The rapidity of the change is a confirmation not only of Sarri’s coaching quality but of his tactical certainty. He knows exactly what he wants from his players, and how to get them to do what he wants. While the 4-1-2-1-2 system he utilised at Empoli and very briefly with Napoli, has since been ditched in favour of a 4-3-3, his ideas have remained the same. Ever since he made his bow at the highest level of football management in 2014, he has remained committed to high pressing and precise, vertical possession.
His clarity will help Chelsea. Whatever kinks remain will be straightened out in the coming months so that his style is fully in place. Simultaneously, players such as David Luiz, Ross Barkley and Pedro, who perhaps under-performed in recent seasons, will be restored to their best and others, such as N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and Antonio Rudiger, will only get better. However, Sarri’s approach does come with one significant drawback.
The 59-year-old’s desire to stick to his principles is unwavering, and this rigidity can at times compromise the team. While his Plan A led Napoli to wondrous new heights, it also became predictable. After a time, opponents began to figure it out and line up specifically to counter it. This perhaps explains why, amid all the stunning football and equally stunning wins, there was – every six months or so – at least one rather large bump in the road.
In Sarri’s first season with Napoli, the first bump came away to Bologna in December 2015. Bologna, pressing and counter-pressing relentlessly, and focusing specifically on tracking Jorginho, were 2-0 up within 20 minutes. Within an hour they were 3-0 up. Two late Higuain goals were not enough for Napoli, whose unbeaten run ended at 13 league games. Later that same season, Napoli lost the plot as they lost to Udinese, 3-1, on a day that saw them fall six points behind eventual league winners Juventus.
Sarri’s second season with Napoli saw title hopes stunted badly by a run of three defeats in five games in October, while his third and final campaign saw a winning run end at 10 games when Roma hammered them at Stadio San Paolo. Insigne put Napoli 1-0 up, but Roma equalised within a minute and went on to lead 4-1 after 80 minutes. Eventually, they won 4-2, Napoli’s lead over Juventus was cut to a point, and Juve went on to retain their title.
Sarri has been likened to Pep Guardiola because of the attractiveness of his football. Both are seen as purists, but they are dissimilar in one vital way. Guardiola is a lover of change, at times to a fault. He is constantly looking for new methods of winning games. Sarri, on the other hand, tends to wed himself to one way. His Plan A is beautiful and productive, and it is already in place at Stamford Bridge, but there has never been any evidence of a viable Plan B. Until that changes, Chelsea remains at the mercy of his tactical certainty.
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