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Sarriball: The Ballad of the Bridge

Maurizio Sarri was brought in to replace Antonio Conte in the off-season after the latter led Chelsea to a Premier League and FA Cup triumph under his reign. The move for Sarri by the Chelsea board was a step in a new direction for the club, but it was not anything new.

The club hired Andre Villas-Boas back in 2011 to bring a more ‘progressive’ style to London after Mourinho, Grant and Ancelotti’s ‘outdated’ styles. Villas-Boas only lasted one season at the club after he lost the board’s confidence and well as the dressing room, which led to his demise.

Now Sarri is the latest instalment of ‘new school’ managers brought in to breathe a new style of football into one of Europe’s biggest clubs. Maurizio was his name and ‘Sarriball’ his brand; a fast-paced version of Barcelona’s tiki-taka, as the pundits labelled it. His first competitive game in English football earned him a lot of praise, a hard-fought loss to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Community Shield.

Early days at the bridge

The season started well for the Italian; five wins in a row, including an exciting 3-2 win against Arsenal led the Chelsea faithful singing Sarri’s name at every turn. His record signing Jorginho was also impressing, the Italian brought his best player with him from Napoli and his early performances showed why he was sought after by Sarri.

The turning point came against West Ham, where Chelsea failed to score in a 0-0 draw at the London Stadium. Then came a few results that uncovered a few flaws with ‘Sarriball’: Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United played their wingers high and wide to exploit the space behind Chelsea’s fullback and almost won the game. Marco Silva tasked Sigurdsson and Richarlison to double-team Jorginho, leading to another stale, toothless showing by the Blues. Pochettino’s Tottenham side tore Chelsea to shreds on the counter, with Dele Alli also doing a job on Jorginho.

Tottenham dealt Chelsea their first loss in the league season, journalists and pundits picked apart Chelsea’s performances, their defending and Jorginho’s role came under the microscope. Everyone began to question this new style of Chelsea and whether it would serve them well throughout the course of the season.

A system that became dysfunctional anytime the conductor (Jorginho) was marked out of the game, flat and sterile attacking performances against the likes of West Ham and Everton and the joy opponents like Liverpool, Spurs and United found when attacking Chelsea down the flanks added to the troubles at the Bridge. Add the fact that Chelsea failed to look convincing anytime they faced a team that defended deep, and Sarriball was looking more like Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United.

So what exactly is wrong at Chelsea?
Fans say it’s the players and that they lack the quality to play Sarriball, others say it’s the lack of a good striker to put the balls in the net and there are a few who have called for the board to splash the cash and bring in new faces into the XI. Maurizio Sarri himself says that his style would take time to settle and that some of the players he excommunicated from the squad could not play in his system (Drinkwater and Emerson among others).

What exactly is wrong with the Blues? I think the problem is a two-way street; both the player and Sarri himself are to blame.

The Players

For most parts of the season, you realize that not all of the players have bought into Sarri’s style. Most of them have complained about his training methods, and have indirectly criticized his style in the media. Some have complained that the instructions on the pitch are too complex or restrictive to play out.

Who can blame them though? Half of this squad were the same people who played under Ancelotti, Mourinho and Conte with multiple medals to show for it. If you take a closer look at Chelsea’s high press this season, it almost looks as if the players are not interested; the same Willian, Pedro and Hazard who were pressing machines under Mourinho and Conte, have not shown that same hunger this season and that is hurting Sarri’s style.

Sarri

“No, because today I didn’t see my football. At the beginning [of the season] it worked. So now we need only to understand the reasons why at the moment it isn’t working. Something is changing. I am not able to see the reason but we have to work for this. My target is to play my football, not to change [to] another football because at the moment we are playing another football.”

This is Sarri’s biggest mistake at Chelsea; stubbornness and failure to adopt change. Sarri has failed to do what many coaches before him have done; adapt. Look at his starting XIs since his first match of the season; the same team and the same formation every game. For a ‘tactical mastermind’, he has not made any tactical tweaks in a game or before a big match to counter the opponent; to him, his way is the only way.

In Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat to Tottenham earlier this season, Sarri said: “I am disappointed because we played very badly. I think we played very badly in all directions – physically, mentally, technically and tactically. I knew we had some problems and with this performance today it was clear to everybody we have problems to solve. I think in the last three or four matches we have started not really very well. Today I did not like anybody.” .

Here lies his second flaw; he is very quick to hang out his players to dry (well, except Jorginho). Since Sarri arrived at the Bridge, he has had a lot to say about some members of Chelsea’s squad: He said N’golo Kante cannot play as his Defensive Midfielder because he is not “a very technical player, a Jorginho or [Cesc] Fabregas” , has told star player Eden Hazard that he “needs to improve” by having more “intensity in training” and most notably explaining his reasons for not starting Chelsea starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi because of his “defensive phase” .

Sarri has made the most rookie error when it comes to management; alienating the players. He has also not realized his style will not see him throughout the season and that a few tweaks along the way would help.

Sarri is trying to fit square pegs in round holes, forcing players into positions they have never (or rarely) played before, mainly:

  • Marcos Alonso has not played in a back four system since his Bolton and Sunderland days; Conte knew this and made him a wingback for his system
  • Azpilicueta was primarily used as a defensive fullback under Mourinho and a 3rd Center back by Conte; both managers won the league with him playing in exclusively defensive roles
  • N’golo Kante one of the best defensive midfielders in the league has now been converted to a number 8, a role he has not played since his Caen days in Ligue 2
  • Mateo Kovacic, who was deputy to Modric and Kroos in deeper midfield roles under Zidane has now been tasked to magically transform into a goalscoring midfielder

In football, players play the way they are instructed or conditioned to; more or less their ‘second nature’. Therefore, it is not always the players’ fault when they are expected to follow a completely new style with patterns and circuits they never did before under Conte, Mourinho or Ancelotti.

There are a lot more examples, but the bottom line is Sarri is shoehorning players into a system they are not fully convinced of. Try getting Hazard, Willian and David Luiz; who have won multiple trophies in England and Europe, to play under a manager who has never won a trophy. Pochettino, Guardiola and Klopp have been able to mould their teams to play their style not by consistently berating their players and sticking to tactics that did not work, but by adapting.

Source: Kwadwo Ntiamoah

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