SARRI BALL: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF CHELSEA FC PATTERN OF PLAY/DANGERS AHEAD
BY E.I IHEGWURUIKE
Chelsea’s managerial merry-go-round has been running at full pace for the best part of the last decade. Just like Real Madrid, they’ve set the trend in modern football in how a club can keep being successful whilst still hiring new managers every couple of seasons.
Getting the Chelsea job is akin to receiving a trophy for being the moment’s “managerial hot property” for football coaches having proven their credentials (in an often very different context). But that trophy often turns out to be a poisoned chalice for a mixture of different reasons, such as having to deal with the famous “player power” in place, being embroiled into the club’s intricate internal dealings (especially regarding transfers) or showing an inability to adapt to the essence of English football, sometimes with a squad being narrowed for a variety of reasons.
Back to the merry-go-round: if you look at all the recent Chelsea managers and their characteristics, a pattern of alternation emerges about the football played or management style (as well as smoking habit).
In terms of the football played, Chelsea have been on a “winning at all costs” wavelength pretty much since Abramovitch took over. All their success (apart maybe from Ancelotti’s Double) were achieved by grinding out results, mostly soaking up pressure and playing on the counter. Every manager who was hired for or tried to play expansive football either shown the door quickly in the new year (Villas Boas, Scolari), sometimes even quicker (Di Matteo II) or changed their stance after a few months (Mourinho II) … or both, sort of (Villas Boas).
In terms of management style, some managers have been more prone to giving a lot of responsibility to their own players whilst praising them on a regular basis. Caretakers have done that, sometimes only being a distant figure behind the famous “player power” that has embodied Chelsea after Mourinho’s first departure.
At the other end of the spectrum, Chelsea have had a few very authoritarian managers as well. Some dug their own grave from the very first day they came into the office (Benítez, Villas Boas). But Mourinho and Conte had been able to win over everyone in a short span of time.
Chelsea managers since Mourinho
Here is what Chelsea experienced since Mourinho departed in 2007:
- Grant oversees Chelsea to a runner-up finish in PL, goes far in Europe
- Scolari brought in to play fancy football, doesn’t work out, gets the boot
- Hiddink takes over on caretaker basis, shuts the shop, goes far in Europe
- Ancelotti gets plaudits winning the league in style with goal record (103)…
- …but has a difficult in second season (loses key players, squad narrowed, transfers flop)
- Villas Boas brought in to play fancy football, doesn’t work out, gets the boot
- Di Matteo takes over, shuts up shop, goes far in Europe (wins CL)
- Di Matteo tries to play fancy football, doesn’t work out, gets the boot
- Benítez takes over, shuts the shop, goes far in Europe (wins EL)
- Mourinho brought back in for long term, changes his stance midway through, clears the house out…
- …gears up and leads a 14-man commando to his third PL title.
- Third season swiftly crashes and burn and transfers deals backfire over the summer
- Hiddink takes over again, shuts up shop, doesn’t go far in Europe
- Conte gains plaudits for winning the league in style with win record (30)…
- …but has a difficult in second season (loses key players, squad narrowed, transfers flop)
- Sarri brought in to play fancy football… TBC
Fancy Football, a banana peel in Chelsea
The last three managers whose job was to produce the demanded “fancy football” (whatever that means) to entertain the masses, all ended up getting the sack midway through the season.
Sarri’s challenge to succeed at Chelsea is even more difficult that he must make sure to avoid every banana peel his predecessors already slipped on in the past.
Additionally, part of the decision behind hiring certain managers, or the reason why they turned out to be successful is how they stood opposite of the man before them. After several months with extremely demanding managers, the need has been felt to have a more “laid back” approach.
The former was often correlated with public criticism, extreme demands in regard to respecting instructions, especially defensively. The idea was to try to milk the very best out of the players. This also led to a string of “bust-ups” and player departures sooner than expected.
If the latter was based on public praise of key players and freed the expression of a certain set of players, it also developed a form of complacency which had the previous manager’s key features fading away like a palimpsest you can still read for a short while.
The point isn’t to say one approach was better than the other, just that sometimes, change for the sake of change is good, but for the new perspective it offers, more so than for the change itself.
Sarri has been praised for putting ketchup back on the menu at Cobham (basically), which is interpreted as a return to normality after two years of eating seeds under Conte’s dictatorial regime.
What is Sarri-ball? And what does it rely on?
Team either gets behind the ball to high press from a medium block, or defends his own half, always with a compact block (full zonal marking, with mutual defensive cover and distances maintained) and offside trap.
What does it require?
lot of automatisms to read triggers and keep the correct distances with teammates. A lot of focus over teammates’ positioning is needed.
The high press is energy-consuming, even more so when momentum isn’t turned into goals. Instead of defending their own half in 5+4 then 5+3 like under Conte, Chelsea defends in 4+3 (or 4+5 when opposition fullbacks advance).
Chelsea’s center backs still struggle to defend outside of their position within the box, something which Mourinho partially solved playing (for the second time) a right footed defender at left back (Gallas / Azpilicueta), and Conte solved by playing three at the back.
As for parking the bus — once ahead on the score like in the second half vs. Liverpool at home (i.e.: most advanced player in our side of the center circle) — Sarri’s Chelsea doing so in 4141 (sort of) is a welcome change from Conte doing exactly the same in 532 and Mourinho in 4411.
How are Chelsea faring right now?
As for high pressing, the front three’s work rate off the ball is certainly work in progress.
The days of a hard working Eto’o-Willian-Oscar trio to harass defences are long gone. Hazard-Morata-Willian are actually closer to Mata-Torres-Sturridge from Villas Boas’ early days.
Giroud and especially Willian’s half hearted pressing allowSouthampton to go through and play where Kanté isn’t. Azpilicueta is forced to close down Bertrand late and surrenders space behind him. Rüdiger is drawn outside the width of the box, Jorginho fills in as makeshift central defender and the ball gets to Ings who’s gotten away from David Luiz’s field of vision for a massive chance at 0-0.
Not closing opponents down outside their defensive third, exposes the backline to long punts in behind (or combination play to draw central defenders out). It’s difficult to name more equipped central defenders to defend both in the air and in behind them than Rüdiger and David Luiz and yet they’ve still been hung out to dry on a couple of occasions.
As the front three’s work rate isn’t great without the ball (and I believe isn’t set to improve drastically, otherwise Pedro or Willian would have shown from day 1 the same willingness to press that has epitomized their best years at the highest level… which they haven’t).
Hazard has been sort of tasked to focus on the attacking phase. It’s typical for modern attackers to rotate their defensive positions on occasion to have more time to rest depending on where they ended up on the field. Against Liverpool, Hazard pretty much stationed upfront for the whole game and let Giroud do the donkey work out wide.
The front three’s work is about setting a pressing trap in between them for a midfielder to intervene.
The consequence on the midfield three is so that the ball near midfielder joins the striker closing down whoever’s directly ahead of him (in a very typical Italian zonal 433 fashion).
Just like Chelsea like to draw the opponents’ pressing, Chelsea’s zonal midfield three might be drawn to close down whoever they’re the closest to. Keeping close distance, plus wide players shutting down the sides makes midfielders cover some ground (which is energy consuming) which might expose them to being played around if the ball is moved well enough by the opposition. The implementation is good, the question mark stands over how sustainable it is considering only one of the three is set to be rotated (Kovačić and Barkley, incidentally the less disciplined runners).
Not only it makes midfielders covering big areas of the pitch, sometimes even on level with attackers when the opponent is bypassing the front three (or when the front three is stretched to control advancing fullbacks).
This has obviously already exposed Barkley and Kovačić’s inability to track back into position after having pressed someone in the other half. It’s the same once they’ve (skillfully) brought the ball across to the opposition’s half, from the left side of Chelsea’s midfield and possession is turned over.
But more concerning for Chelsea is that it may expose Kanté for the first time ever. The former JS Suresnes (of the eighth tier in western Paris) midfielder who’s only played top flight football in compact, direct and counter attacking teams for Caen (as a box to box with Nicolas Seube as holding midfielder), Leicester (who used to defend in compact two banks of four), Chelsea (and Conte’s renowned flat then diamond 541), and France (in a compact lopsided 442).
Kante’s role per se isn’t new for him.
At Caen he played either in 433 but already in an advanced role with Adeoti or Seube as lone holder. Or in a two with old fashioned n°10 Feret. He was very impressive in terms of dribbling forwards. Like a quicker Kovacic.
Having smaller defensive distances with wingers shutting down the sides is nothing like having to defend half the pitch like say Fernandinho does. The types of runs (longer, requiring more time to rest), and margin for error (narrower) are very different. Kanté might still do the job pretty well, but that pushes his job responsibility to the edge especially with the accumulation of games.
As far as Jorginho’s involved in the defensive phase, it’s fair to say he’s often failed to screen the back four so far for a variety of reasons:
- being drawn high up the pitch (because he closes down someone) and beaten off with an up-back movement might be an issue if teams can exploit it with clever movements in pockets of space behind him.
- being drawn wide to provide support to a fullback or covering a fullback, is the direct consequence of having to fill in when ball-near side centre midfielder is out of position. This might free the zone at the edge of the box in case the ball far center midfielder doesn’t keep the good distance (Jorginho not being responsible for that per se)
- failing to check his shoulder for an attacker showing up short at the edge of the box, being manhandled or failing to keep up in mobility with his direct opponent – here’s the point of defensive positioning to stay in between the ball and the goal. Jorginho has been seen too often wrong side of his direct opponent in the D for it not to become an issue at some point.
- failing to fill the penalty area zone on crosses against, notably half a dozen times in the first half against Arsenal alone.
Lone holders in the Premier League are often potent aerially, for the main purpose of being able to challenge strikers in the air whilst the back four is accountable for controlling space in behind in case the ball is flicked on by a towering striker. Jorginho’s 0.3 aerial duels won per game requires therefore that the center backs go up for the challenge by themselves, which destroys the defensive line every time (getting fullbacks wrong side and playing attackers onside).
As for what happens in the box, David Luiz will be prone to losing his man or fail to meet crosses before strikers in the box because it’s also what his career has been about for a decade now. Rüdiger’s spectacular but hasty clearances are a bit of a tightrope to rely on.
Gary Cahill gets the level of consideration of someone pushed towards the exit in January. Andreas Christensen could improve with match time, in order to fix some of the similar issues than mentioned above that put him into trouble (staying too much on the ball or losing markers in the box).
Kepa’s integration has been good so far, but he might struggle at one point if teams decide to shell crosses in considering he’s joint smallest of the last 4 Chelsea goalkeepers. Courtois towers 3 centimeters above the 1.96m Petr Čech (6ft5). Both of them being a good 10 to 15 centimeters taller (i.e. equivalent to one hand) than Kepa and Cudicini (1.86m, 6ft2).
Team tries to find a midfielder facing play, baiting the opponents and playing through his high press. Once Chelsea create time / space for a midfielder, the idea is to play as soon as possible the most advanced player in the next line of play to dump the ball to a third player on the move to attack at pace.
If the opponents get back in shape when the ball is in midfield, Chelsea try to work the ball patiently around the box to find an opener, relying on triangular rotations and short runs in behind, and crosses.
What does it require?
The key feature is positioning (lines of play, within opposition’s shape) to open passing angles, but circuits have been automated through pattern play. Therefore, therefore Sarri isn’t keen on rotation (lineups), because what makes his gameplan tick is the non-verbal communication and priming between the regular starters. But what is true for Sarri was also true for Conte and Mourinho, who were also adepts of relying on the same 15 players for chemistry purposes.
But from a different perspective, the more you attack teams at pace with one or two touches flicks, the more you need very good players from a technical point of view. Hence the reliance on Hazard, Pedro and Willian.
Circulate the ball at the back in a “U” to draw opponents isn’t exactly new because it was also a key feature of Conte’s Chelsea (albeit with a back three after the first few games).
You’d almost forget Conte was keen on powerful strikers on the wrong side of thirty, reinvigorated in an “Indian summer” style because they’re asked to receive long deck passes, and lay it off, when you read about Giroud’s current role.
Typical feature of Conte’s early games in charge of Chelsea. U-circulation (in 433) to find a diagonal deck pass for the center forward (Diego Costa). From my own TV sequence on RMC Sport (formerly SFR Sport), which you can watch here.
As for 1-3-2 movement (playing an advanced player to lay off for someone facing play) getting an odd level of focus from onlookers under Sarri whilst it was the very building block of his predecessor’s game plan just paints the story of the different level of attention (or over analysis) some managers get the more likeable they look, no matter what they actually do.
Typical layered combination play with Conte, with a layoff to find someone on the upper line (Costa) during the demolition of Everton. From my own sequence on Conte’s Chelsea’s attacking movements on RMC Sport (formerly SFR Sport), which you can watch here.
As for attacking teams at pace with quick combinations, we can note there’s more connections involving the midfielders (such as Kanté, Kovačić) and the front three with Sarri than under Mourinho or Conte, where base midfielders were mostly there to play the first pass forward.
Having midfielders consistently running in behind is certainly creating an unusual set of issues for the opposition but it also opens the team a slight bit in case the ball is lost.
Conte’s Chelsea was also keen to play the ball out with quick combinations, but it was rare to have players leaving their position, let alone getting ahead of the ball when they weren’t meant to.
There used to be interchanging and rotations in Mourinho’s Chelsea, but only in defined areas: Oscar dropping off and Fàbregas roaming between the lines, Matic drifting wide when receiving from the CBs for Ivanovic to push on, Azpilicueta getting on level for Hazard to cut inside, Eto’o drifting wide for Schürrle to run in behind.
And the principles of positional play (trying to bypass each of the opponent’s line playing through or around them) were also a clear evolution from Mourinho’s time, where you’d never see defenders passing the ball into traffic in their defensive half.
Conte’s circuit were mechanic rather than trying to generate a structure to play out (think of John Stones’ getting behind strikers to beat the first line).
Chelsea attack from both sides primarily (36% of attacks on each side) with the same triangular movements involving all three of fullback, side centre midfielder and winger on both sides. Most frequent movement being side centre midfielder running in the corner, fullback overlapping and winger cutting inside.
This repartition is similar to what happened in the last title winning season (35/31/35) with a balanced attack in 16/17 (Pedro and Hazard around Costa), with stability to deal with counter attacks with three central defenders being able to defend the channels on transitions.
That’s different to 14/15’s lopsided attack (38/31/32) where Mourinho’s team was built to set up Hazard being the difference maker (and Willian tucking inside from the right, Oscar / Fàbregas interchanging and Azpilicueta doing the donkey work behind Hazard).
But Chelsea has been leaving gaps in their defensive structure whilst attacking under Sarri.
Midfielders running in behind are unusual but it’s entirely conceivable when there’s players to compensate for this (in terms of how many people stay behind the ball). Under Mourinho (who instructs his team to keep at least 5 behind the ball when attacking), whenever there was a rotation with Fàbregas roaming, Oscar was getting behind the ball in possession. Whenever Matić ran in behind, Willian tucked inside like a third centre midfielder.
There’s no such thing in place for Sarri’s Chelsea which leaves the wings wide open on transition. It is frequent to have Chelsea defending counters with only four players behind the ball (remaining 3 or 2 defenders + Jorginho), and one player level with the ball (fullback or midfielder).
It’s certainly entertaining for neutral football fans. From a different perspective, this is also the kind of stuff that makes opposing managers consistently praising Chelsea’s style of play before the games, for obvious reasons.
Chelsea’s structure when attacking is quite bold, with both sets of midfielders running in behind and winger-fullback pairs also occupying one channel each. This often only leaves Jorginho and two central defenders behind the ball to account for defensive balance, and defensive cover down the wings relying on Rüdiger and David Luiz.
It is also interesting to note that only 28% of Chelsea’s attack happen through the center of the pitch this season which is the lowest proportion since 2011/12.
If #Sarriball has to be associated with another new buzzword to rebrand a football concept which existed before even flintstones were used to make fire, anything about attacking through the middle wouldn’t be one of them as far as the actual football is involved.
How are Chelsea faring right now?
Progressing the ball into midfield
Playing from the back has produced a few brilliant sequences to bring the ball from back to front with quick combination play. It has also exposed Chelsea in the early stages by giving the ball away at the edge of their own box at the same rate. Something which surprisingly doesn’t fill your internet timelines with video clips.
Sarri’s team has been open at the back in possession like no Chelsea team have been since Di Matteo’s ill-fated season he started in charge.
- Benítez had the team playing out from the wings exclusively.
- Mourinho had his team’s typical feature of one center midfield drifting wide to pack the full side but one man (Ivanovic or Hazard) on one side of the pitch.
- Conte’s play from the back circuit was having a stable back three playing up/back with a midfielder to release the winger, or vice-versa.
Let’s see as the season develops how opponents will scout and read circuits or assign someone on Jorginho to prevent Chelsea playing out.
Breaking down opponents who park the bus
As for the second type of Sarri’s Chelsea’s attacks, when the opponent is back in defensive shape and Chelsea have “handball” like possession. Difference makers are what will set apart one of the teams, if the other decides to build a wall in their defensive third
Possession is about getting inside, and behind the opponent’s shape and it’s now common to see top flight teams deciding to stay compact and not try to challenge possession at all. Newcastle (19% possession) or West Ham (28% possession) have done that and have gambled on counters bypassing players on transition via direct play.
It relies on the discipline not to rush out like madmen like most teams would do if the opponent started to play three passes in a row like ten or fifteen years ago. It is clear teams can produce all-time high figures in terms of possession these days and there’s no doubt chasing shadows when the opposition closes on to a four-figure number of passes can be mentally or physically exhausting.
But at the same time, teams are more prepared than ever from a physical and mental point of view to deal with that and show discipline to wait for Chelsea to move the ball in areas where their pressing is set.
The issue for the best team if the game is immediately set up as defense versus attack is that if you don’t score within the first half hour, most PL teams are able to sit on the point of the draw for a good seventy-five minutes.
Therefore, it’s not a matter of “Chelsea had to play a thousand passes because Newcastle parked the bus”, but more “Newcastle let Chelsea play an unhealthy number of passes in non threatening areas to focus on doing their best to prevent Chelsea getting into their box, which they did for 76 minutes”
That’s the reason why Mourinho and Conte (getting some slack on the way) or Hiddink in his time decided to sit a little bit deeper, even at home, to force opponents to have more possession (to an extent) whilst still keeping enough room to operate behind them once they get the ball back.
Breaking down teams is hard enough, there’s no need to let them an excess of time to rest and re-organize behind the ball, especially when expensively built PL teams also adopt the same tactics as Cardiff City or vintage Stoke City to waste time these days.
Let’s see in what capacity the Premier League’s second best assist provider of all time (115) can contribute to Chelsea’s success this season, with his ability to ping a single pass where most teams need three players and twice as much contacts with the ball.
Fàbregas is equally capable (if not more) to dictate play from deep than Jorginho, because he has the vision to play a long pass over the top when needed. It’s nevertheless amusing to read how much of a concern Fàbregas getting bypassed defensively on the odd occasion might be, when Jorginho has been played off the park in his defensive third for everyone to see so far.
Finding a way through
Chelsea only found a way through against Benitez’s side with a pen and a deflected volley involving the left back in the box. Waiting the final 15 minutes for an individual piece of brilliance from Pedro, or more unlikely Marcos Alonso to unlock the game isn’t really the most sustainable strategy.
This is especially true regarding the former Real Madrid and Bolton Wanderers left back, whose propensity to get in shooting positions is impressive nevertheless. But having the left back, no matter how good he is, joint third for shots per game (2) seemingly isn’t something that catches the “unsustainable” online brigade’s attention at the minute. Marcos Alonso can therefore enjoy the plaudits Branislav Ivanović never really did, despite both players having a similar skillset and goalscoring habit (the iron-made Serbian got 4 goals and 6 assists in 14/15, Alonso 7 goals and 2 assists last season).
Play progresses and Luiz picks Kanté, who runs un behind to draw Wijnaldum away and allow Willian to cut inside. At the same time, Kovačić also runs in behind, which in case of a turnover, exposes Chelsea down the flanks to a typically hard to defend bended long pass around the fullbacks for a forward to run the channel.
As for the triangular movements at the edge of the box, it will be interesting to see how the balance will tip. Whilst the imbalance created for the opponent is also one for Chelsea (when the side centre midfield runs in behind, something Kanté and Kovačić do, even sometimes at the same time), it must be correlated with goals.
None of Willian nor Pedro ever reached double figures for league goals for Chelsea.
Otherwise, the opportunities offered in the vacated spaces down the wings will be exploited by opponents the more the season goes on (remember when Ancelotti ditched 4-diamond-2 in 2009 when Roberto Martinez’s Wigan smashed the ball down the channels and won 3-1, because fullbacks bombed forward and Essien joined the party as well).
N’Golo Kanté shoehorned into midfield
Kanté’s role has been the big question mark so far. The World Cup winning midfielder has been shoehorned in an attacking 8 position to accommodate Jorginho in his preferred position.
Attacking 8 isn’t exactly a new position for Kanté, but one he hasn’t played in since 2014/15 when he played for SM Caen. Whilst his dribbling was already impressive back then (this was what caught my eye for what I saw of him), the quality of his final pass was often disappointing which is probably why every manager played him in a deeper role since (Ranieri, Conte, Deschamps).
Running in behind and taking on people does not look like Kanté’s preferred situation.
He’s not exactly a right winger, nor is able to take on opponents like Kovačić or Barkley can.
His defensive contribution to close opponents and intercepts the ball is still a very strong feature of his game, and he can intervene higher than before. This can protect Jorginho to an extent. But if Chelsea want to play with the ball, having Kanté running all over the place (and boasting huge defensive numbers) would rather paint an inability to control possession (because of too much turnovers).
There’s a conundrum here, which is that the more you want the ball back, the more you need N’Golo Kanté. But the flip of the coin is that the more you actually have it, the less Kanté is at ease especially as an attacking 8.
At least, Sarri and Chelsea are making sure they get the ball back. How they use it is a whole different story when everyone is behind the ball.
Lack of rotation
Much has been said of Sarri’s unwillingness to rotate. His struggles to finish seasons at Napoli are well documented.
I know from a direct source at Napoli that it’s very hard to get in his mind once you’re not part of his preferred 11. And that the frustration even extends to cup games where most of the usual starters still get the nod and those who don’t only come on for the remaining 20 minutes. Something Chelsea fans have been able to figure out by themselves when they saw the team lineup that beat the mighty PAOK.
So, it’s quite clear that any artifices of communication so far about the likes of Barkley or Cahill going as “I’m sure they’ll be very useful for us this season” aren’t exactly pointing toward involving a large group of players.
Again, there’s no manager who can successfully rely on more than 25 players over one full season unless he tinkers for a few months about the best team to field. It is very common for teams to try to gain an edge early on and get off a good start winning a few games on the trot, relying on the same players, especially in the modern game with over-scrutinized first five game results.
But it is also hard to sustain one full season relying on the very same individuals from day one, from a physical point of view. Also, because players who don’t play a minute often ask to leave in January (which might be the case for Moses, Loftus Cheek, Cahill, Christensen).
Writing about Mourinho’s crash and burn third season on here, I pointed at the implications of relying on an extremely narrow set of players in the 2015 title winning season.
If we look at league only in 2014/15, Chelsea’s most used 11 played 83% of possible minutes. Most used 14 played 71% of possible minutes. This is already a massive reliance on a set of players and we all remember how Chelsea crawled on the floor to claim the title with Kurt Zouma of all people in midfield.
Mourinho’s teams typically run less than other teams, because they often soak up pressure and are very strategic on the counter (this is why his teams aren’t as good with default possession). And they also don’t give a toss about entertainment once they’re ahead on the score and are making sure nothing happens for either of the two teams.
This is very different from a high press high intensity forward minded 433 such as the one Sarri’s putting in place (which includes long runs to get back when players are caught out of position ahead of the ball)
Over a full season, being physically ready, tactical foul the opponent on transition, and converting momentum into goals gives players extra energy (and being up on the scoreline…) to keep a positive dynamic.
If we can think 1. will be achieved because Italian managers are usually very strong on that aspect, we’re waiting to see if 2. and 3. can be achieved.
This is an opportunity to point out no successful modern team has been able to play brilliant football with the ball without an equal amount of vice to prevent the opposition to play. Whoever still reads my tweets knows what I’m talking about.
As for finishing chances, I won’t dwell on the Morata situation who seems to overthink in front of goal whenever he can’t finish with only one touch. Scoring after having missed a few clear chances in succession (remember 2012/13?) also gives confidence to opponents.
As long as Morata spends more time on the floor whining about being clattered back to goal, and makes sure to have his feeling known to referees (11 yellow cards, how many for dissent? Remember Costa’s attitude issues) than being a reliable outlet for linking up with his team mates, Giroud will add up minutes. Probably until Hazard is played upfront (which is what he sort of is already doing right now).
After 8 games this season in the League with Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea’s most used 11 played 86% of possible minutes. Most used 14 played 78% of possible minutes.
Outside of it, RLC played a grand total of 33 minutes, Moses 26, Cahill 21 and Zappacosta has four more letters to his name than minutes played so far. Christensen has zero minutes and might want to leave for good this time, which would have nothing in common with the situation of De Bruyne, Lukaku or Salah when they asked to leave.
Slipping on banana peel
Those are the different banana skins Sarri needs to avoid stamping on like his predecessors.
Defensively there’s a mixture of Villas Boas’ high block 433 with *inconsistent* pressing from the front three. There’s also a spirit of Di Matteo’s 12/13 where nobody who watched the games believed a triumvirate of inexperienced number 10 could reasonably not have the team wide open on transition.
Attacking wise, some of the very dull attack versus defense games where Chelsea had the ball but didn’t really knew what to do with it are reminiscent of Villas Boas’ early games. I won’t go from comparing Jorginho’s situation to when Villas Boas moved Lampard on the bench to play Meireles instead (or benched Mikel to play Oriol Romeu) but there’s still a World Cup winning midfielder playing out of position at the minute.
And as for starting the same 11 every game until total exhaustion runs the team onto the ground, Luis Felipe Scolari’s Chelsea also played scintillating football early on but that fade away once winter came. And Di Matteo (albeit he probably knew he was going to get sacked at one point, so went for it) whose team won 7 out of 9 and was even deemed title challengers despite ending the season 25 points from top (and behind Newcastle United) the season before.
Benitez led that team to a 15pts distance from top, despite losing both the Club World Cup and the opportunity to start Mikel in the final – who was suspended for the next domestic game three days later at the antipode – guess from which area the losing goal came from.
And to an extent, there’s a feel of Ancelotti’s second season where the 433 was found out in terms of how the ball was played out (and Mikel being monitored back to goal just how Jorginho’s is about to figure out in the coming weeks), whilst Lee Cattermole and Sunderland rampaged to a 3-0 win at Chelsea.
Ancelotti adapted and signed Torres in January to play 442 and still finished second. Conte’s circuits were also scouted in the second season, and without a firing striker “exceeding expected goals” like the pantomime villain Diego Costa, it was hard to catch up on other top teams and he slipped out of top four (but still lead Chelsea’s first training session in pre-season).
There’s a couple of parallels that can be drawn between Ancelotti’s second season and Conte’s. Such as losing key players:
- Ballack, Deco, Carvalho… Matić in 2010
- John Terry, Diego Costa… Matić (again)
Signing an expensive quick Spanish striker feeling the burden of the cursed (at least since the turn of the millennium) #9 shirt in Fernando Torres and Álvaro Morata. The pair have seemingly been contesting 7 years apart on whom who’d miss the target from the closest to goal. Albeit Álvaro Morata sort of experienced a Benjamin Button’s debut being good at the start and worse the more it lingers on.
Both managers experienced a very difficult joyless second season and whilst the football was never this bad in retrospect (found out by opposing teams, but still coherent), it never came close to the heights reached in the first season.
What happened from the turn of the year onwards? Everyone was speaking about the next managerial hot property no-one heard of five years ago, who’d finally bring the spectacular football Chelsea’s oligarch has been craving for years.
Both Italian managers got the boot in a tasteless fashion, with Chelsea upping their game from sacking the manager in the tunnel to the uncharted territory of sacking him after he takes charge of the first training session in the new season. So much for Conte’s full staff’s training gear printed with everyone’s initials for one training session. Sparing no expense.
Both much anticipated new managers have been assigned an Italian Chelsea legend as assistant coaches in Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola… who incidentally hold the required coaching qualifications to coach in the Premier League (something they both did for a team whose name starts with West, where they didn’t leave an unforgettable stamp and eventually got the sack from).
Good news (for Sarri) being that Chelsea isn’t scheduled to travel at the Hawthorns in the League until next season at least. Both Villas Boas and Di Matteo took charge their final PL game there before getting the sack after the following Champions League defeat (respectively 3-1 at Napoli and 3-0 at… Conte’s Juventus).
And now 71-year old Guus Hiddink is probably permanently based in Provence to improve his French speaking skills these days.
Having fingers in too many pies
Chelsea ended the 2018 season with 70 points, which is 30 points from top and half a dozen from the Champions League spots.
One of the things that had me concerned about the challenge facing Antonio Conte when he took over in 2016, was the point gap he had to bridge.
The biggest season-to-season point swing in the PL era back then was Leicester, who got 40 more points to clinch the Premier League title. Antonio Conte outdid that achievement, with a 43-point swing (50 to 93), also running away with the title. David Luiz’s addition allowed him to implement his preferred 3-4-3 system and the rest is history.
Biggest season to season positive point swings in the Premier League (football didn’t exist before 1992). From my own sequence on SFR Sport (now RMC Sport), which you can watch here.
But it is important to note that just like Brendan Rodgers in 2013/14, Conte was able to mount a title challenge without any European commitment. Which is a positive thing from a training point of view (more time to work and rest), even more because title challengers are usually expected to #hustle like Antonio Rüdiger in the Champions League.
Chelsea are involved in Europa League, which as far as the quality of opponents faced, is less than Champions League ones. But at the contrary, Thursday evening scheduling is a nightmare from the periodization of training point of view, not just for the travel constraints but because it prevents to do anything meaningful during the week but rest.
After missing out twice on CL qualification since 2015, the priority for Chelsea is to get back in the Champions League because they probably can’t afford to miss out every couple of years or so at the risk of becoming Arsenal.
Manchester City have added Ryad Mahrez to their 100 points PL winning team, Liverpool look as strong as they’ve ever been. Tottenham and Arsenal are going to be close to the first two. The two questions marks for me are United and Chelsea, who I can equally foresee finishing 2nd or 3rd or fall apart at 6th.
Tanking against terrible teams is hard, Sparta Praha, Steaua Bucaresti, Rubin Kazan, FC Basel know something about it. Somehow Chelsea always came out on top (Veni, Vidi FC, Vidić) no matter how many times Fernando Torres failed to hit the target from close range (in that regard, Álvaro Morata looks increasingly like his £20m more expensive heir).
So that basically makes Chelsea tied with EL commitments at least until the quarter finals (mid-march).
As for giving young players opportunities (Hudson Odoi, Christensen, Loftus Cheek), I wish to point out that fans are entitled to believe a 60-year-old Italian manager in his first top job will rotate his best 11 even in Cup games. Let’s put it the way that I’m probably not one of them.
It’s always amusing to see how managers with a good reputation are automatically associated with what sounds cool for mainstream fans such as saying cool things (or *the truth*) in press conferences or giving young players a chance. Reality won’t hold against them if aforementioned managers say they don’t like the transfer market whilst simultaneously adding a few hundred million worth of new players to their teams, or leave the likes of Hudson Odoi, Solanke, or Foden stranded on the bench or in their sofa at home.
This being said, it is probably a good thing considering how quickly sections of fans can be fickle and turn on their own players they scream for being included in the XI after they have a poor game. In that perspective, that’s better to have Moses on the pitch than Hudson Odoi being ruined by his own fans (remember the reaction when Jeffrey Bruma was literally out of his depth against Heskey and Aston Villa in 2011).
If Chelsea get back into the Champions League, let alone mount a title Challenge, whilst competing in the Europa League, it will be an achievement in and of itself, especially considering how many good teams there are out there.
Doing all of it in style, with little rotation, inconsistent pressing, and a misfiring attack in front of goal would be bordering on an extraordinary achievement.
FROM THE TOWER OF TRUTH