Slowly but surely: How Maurizio Sarri is changing Chelsea

Date published: Thursday 23rd August 2018 7:20 - Daniel Storey

Maurizio Sarri Chelsea

There are four new managers in the Premier League for this season: at Arsenal, Everton, West Ham and Chelsea. So we thought that it would be a swell idea to check in on their early days to distinguish any changes they made to their new clubs. First we had Marco Silva and next up is Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea…


Abandoning the three-man central defence
Antonio Conte was almost single-handedly responsible for the Premier League renaissance of the three-man central defence, and he used it to earn Chelsea their second league title in three years. Having begun his debut season with a 4-2-3-1 formation, Chelsea lost only one of their first seven matches but conceded nine times in those games.

That persuaded the Italian to revert to the 3-4-3 that he used predominantly when in charge of Juventus. The wing-backs were not obvious fits, a converted winger in Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, an expensive new signing but a player who had previously struggled in the Premier League. It worked a charm, with Alonso and Moses two of the most surprisingly excellent players in the league in their position.

Unfortunately, it did not last. Alvaro Morata has not been an adequate replacement for Diego Costa in the do-it-all lone centre forward role, while Moses’ form fell away. Alonso was regularly caught upfield, leaving gaps in behind. That’s workable if you have pacy central defenders to cover the gap, but David Luiz was out of favour, Gary Cahill was another year older and Andreas Christensen is a fine prospect but not the quickest. Teams learned that if they focused on cutting off the supply from midfield, Chelsea’s central defensive flaws could be exposed. The finishing that had been so excellent in the previous season failed to atone.

Sarri has reverted to a back four, albeit this time with three central midfielders to provide cover in midfield. The return of Cesar Azpilicueta to right-back gives Chelsea defensive security on the right wing, which means Alonso can still surge forward from left-back. It might make Chelsea look a little lopsided in attack – Alonso has had six touches in the opposition penalty area this season (the most of any Chelsea player), Azpilicueta none – but it means cover is only needed on one side. The midfield does not get stretched too thin.


Which means far fewer crosses
Last season, only Tottenham registered more crosses from open play than Chelsea, who averaged 15.4 per league game. It’s not quite an exact science to say that the teams with the most attacking full-backs will attempt the most crosses, but there’s certainly a pattern. This season so far, after the switch from wing-backs to full-backs, Chelsea have dropped to an average of ten crosses per game. From second in the league they now rank 15th.

Look at the identity of Chelsea’s three top crossers last season: Alonso, Moses and Davide Zappacosta, all of whom played exclusively at wing-back. This season, Alonso has attempted five, but Willian has attempted the same number and Pedro only one fewer. Not only are Chelsea attempting fewer crosses, but different players are making them and they are being delivered from further up the pitch.

Chelsea’s Plan B on crosses is Azpilicueta, who memorably assisted Morata for seven of his nine headers last season. Having stepped out and wide from central defence last season to great effect, Azpilicueta is now in an even better position to try and link up with Morata again this season. Who assisted Morata’s goal against Arsenal on Saturday? You guessed it.


Pass and move, the Chelsea groove
Last season, Manchester City were the Premier League’s pass masters. Pep Guardiola’s team completed almost 5,000 more than their nearest contender, Arsenal. They also had a passing accuracy almost 5% higher than any other team. The two usually go hand in hand: the more passes you make, the shorter they generally are and so the more accurate they are likely to be. At the other end you had Stoke City, who completed more than 15,000 fewer passes than City at a success rate of 17.5% less.

Chelsea were towards the top of the league for passing, but far behind City. They ranked fifth for total passes and second for accuracy, although most of the top six (other than City) were within a whisker of each other by that second measure.

Now, City have an early rival to their passing records. Having both played Arsenal and Huddersfield, Chelsea have registered 63 more passes than Manchester City in their opening two games, and their accuracy is only a fraction down on Guardiola’s team. Having averaged 560 per game last season, Chelsea have averaged 689 so far this season.

That is a monumental shift over the course of a single summer, but reflects Sarri’s time at Napoli. With Jorginho in central midfield to control the tempo of the game and with full-backs close to midfielders, Chelsea will play passing triangles to invite the opposition onto them, at which point they can either speed up the tempo of passing to create space in the final third, or attempt a longer ball over the top to exploit the high line. We saw both of those against Arsenal on Saturday.


Changing N’Golo Kante’s role
If the finish itself was hardly striking, a shinned volley that bounced into the goal from Kante’s left foot, the identity of the scorer of Chelsea’s first league goal was surprising. Last season, Kante had only had one shot in the penalty area all season. Here he was having – and scoring – one in the first half of their first match.

And yet that fits Kante’s new role. With Jorginho signed to be the most defensive midfielder, Kante will be shuffled onto the right in a 4-3-3 and thus expected to get forward as well as back. After all, this is the same role that Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have both played at Liverpool. They are entirely different midfielders to Kante.

In the whole of last season, Kante created 41 chances, had 19 touches in the opposition penalty area and attempted that sole shot in the penalty area. In two matches under Sarri, he is Chelsea’s joint-highest chance creator, has had six penalty-box touches and had three more shots in the penalty area following the goal against Huddersfield.

“It’s a new manager, a new system,” he says. “I play a little bit more forward. I try to find the striker, to be more offensive, to cause problems for the opponents. I need to adapt in this role and I will give my best in this position for the team and I hope we can keep doing good things for the future.”

As Adam Bate noted in this excellent longer piece on the issue, there is a question as to whether losing Kante in defensive areas means that Chelsea are a tackler and interceptor light – and the Arsenal game was surely more chaotic than Sarri would like – but this new role may well just take some getting used to. If Kante can become a disciple of Sarri’s high press, he can be crucial in winning possession and immediately playing the ball to an attacker to cause defensive panic.


End of the regime
One of the first changes at Chelsea was noted even before the club had played a competitive match. Conte was a notorious disciplinarian, reportedly angering several key first-team players with his draconian measures. Those measures only increased when the team struggled.

Sarri told the players that he wished to relax the rules within the camp. The players had grown tired of Conte’s insistence that the entire squad stay together in a hotel the night before home games, and the new manager has agreed that they can meet at the stadium on the day of the game. He has also allowed the menu in the canteen at Cobham to be widened.

These might seem like trifling matters and present Chelsea players as pampered and indulged, but they also matter. What’s the point in paying players hundreds of thousands of pounds a week and preparing them tactically for every match if they’re annoyed about not being able to see their kids the night before every home match?

Daniel Storey

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