Is Sarri-ball Still the Way Forward for Chelsea?

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportJanuary 8, 2019

B/R Football

His Chelsea reign began with an 18-match unbeaten run, but now—halfway through his first season in England—questions are emerging over whether Maurizio Sarri is really the tactical mastermind who can lead the Blues into a new era.

It was after a goalless draw at home to Southampton on January 2 that patience began to wear thin for many. For weeks the team had been looking slow and lacking in invention. They struggled for goals with five from five matches against Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Saints.

Journalist Dan Levene was one of the most vocal after their drab Southampton affair, declaring on Twitter that Sarri's football was "blunt, ineffective and pointlessly possession-laden." The replies suggested he was not alone in his thoughts.

One Chelsea fan claimed he was stubborn for having no Plan B and refusing to drop Jorginho. Another said it was like "watching someone stir oatmeal." Many felt the need for possession without any end product had become too tiresome.

Moe Baghai @MoeBaghai

@danlevene Surely there has to be someone better than a banker turned coach, no? Sarri Ball? Whoever invented that term needs to be punished. Who is Sarri to have a Ball? Joke of a season. Pass pass passsssss

The reaction should have been expected to some extent given the manner of the display, yet the situation was a far cry from the adulation Sarri's early performances had brought.

Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe wrote in October how Chelsea had been "thrilling us" and were emerging as Premier League title contenders.

They have not been able to sustain that early-season form, though, and the fanbase seem pretty split on whether this adventure is going to be as exciting as they had hoped.

"There is an odd divide among Chelsea fans," explains Simon Phillips, a football journalist and Chelsea fan. "Some are seemingly ready to jump on every bad result, insinuating that Sarri's style of football is actually boring. But thankfully the majority realise that a system change and implementation takes longer than half a season."

Chloe Beresford is an Italian Football expert and told B/R: "I think the reaction is similar to early doubts about his time at Napoli. Fans across the world marvelled at the easy-on-the-eye style in the latter stages of his tenure there, however, this precision takes time to implement—as we also saw in Pep Guardiola's first season with Manchester City. It's not easy at a place like Chelsea, but you need patience if you also want good times under Sarri." 

The Blues boss has had an unconventional rise as a coach. He never played the game professionally, and earlier in life worked as a banker. From coaching small sides in Italy he progressed to Serie B with Pescara in 2005 but truly made his name at Empoli after taking charge there in 2012. He led them to Serie A and was then appointed by Napoli, where he built a side that progressed to the Champions League and played some of Europe's most attractive football.

The term "Sarri-ball" is used to describe a style of football that is dominant and controlling, as Tighe outlined: 

"At peak effectiveness and with every player attuned to its methods, Sarri-ball is quite the sight. It's a footballing style that moves the ball from back to front quickly on the floor in a sort of vertical tiki-taka.

"The system is conducted by Jorginho, who was brought over to Chelsea in the Sarri signing, from a regista-esque role at the base of midfield. It's fitting that they were seen as a package deal, as without one, the other might not be anywhere near as effective in what they do." 

Jorginho has been singled out as part of the issue at times this season, yet Sarri does not see him as a problem. N'Golo Kante has been moved out of his usual defensive-midfield role to accommodate him, and it's a decision that has riled many supporters.

In December, when pressed on his style of play and Kante being played out of position, per the Telegraph, Sarri said: "I think that Kante in my style of football has to play [further forward]. I can understand that somebody might think different but if you think to my football, you have to say that I am right."

Chelsea are playing a completely different style to the one under Antonio Conte, where Kante was formidable as a defensive midfielder, and Oliver Harbord of Football.London says he was never likely to keep that role.

"Jorginho is Maurizio Sarri's trusted soldier. He was the key signing with the Italian coming into Chelsea and was crucial to the Blues getting off to a decent start this season," he told B/R.

"He naturally fitted right into the system, and he controlled how the team played, how the tempo was set and marshalled the whole team to press at the right times. However, Chelsea fans are getting a little bit wary of the side-to-side passing, and his productivity isn't great, with just one goal from a penalty and no assists in any competition to his name.

"But with Cesc Fabregas reportedly leaving the club, it means Jorginho is certainly undroppable."

Chelsea's performances have become pragmatic and lacking moments of individual brilliance, but Sarri has always held complete belief in his methods—and this is not the first time he has had to deal with questions over his style.

"At Empoli, he achieved success fairly quickly," explained Beresford. "He was snapped up by Napoli but struggled at first—with results prompting Diego Maradona to call for him to be sacked.

"It was a similar situation to the current one at Chelsea, where doubts began to creep in about his lack of experience—only for him to turn things around and prove his critics wrong."

Napoli's midfielder from Brazil Jorginho (R) and Napoli's coach from Italy Maurizio Sarri attend a press conference on the eve of the Champion's League football match Napoli vs Feyenoord on September 25, 2017 in Naples.  / AFP PHOTO / Carlo Hermann
AFP Contributor/Getty Images

Gary Syrett, 35, is a Chelsea season-ticket holder in the Matthew Harding Upper Stand and has seen firsthand the frustration that has set in due to the Blues' play during this period of transition.

"We've had some highs and lows under Sarri so far," he says. "The most notable low was that drubbing against Tottenham, but most fans would agree that it is so far, so good.

"The only thing really worrying is that he does not appear to have a Plan B—which has been the downfall of most of our managers in the last 10 years. If we get a striker in this window, I believe we will get top four, but playing Eden Hazard as a false nine is not the way forward."

Chelsea are in the market for a striker. Gonzalo Higuain's situation is still being explored, while Callum Wilson of Bournemouth and West Ham United's Marko Arnautovic are among others being discussed as back-up.  

There is no Plan B in terms of tactics, though. This is it.

"It is his one major flaw and a reason he didn't win anything with Napoli—he didn't have a Plan B," explains Beresford. "It's his way or nothing." 

Sources at Chelsea insist there is no panic over recent form, despite the fact their place in the top four suddenly seems under threat. They claim it was never expected that the move to Sarri's system would be easy but that everyone—including owner Roman Abramovich—is excited about how he can eventually transform to an attacking style.

"The main thing that is missing to elevate Chelsea is a striker," says Alex Goldberg, a Blues fan and co-host of the CalcioLand Podcast. "Scoring is one of Chelsea's biggest weaknesses, and it will be hard to take the next step until a goalscorer is brought in.

"Now that he is a bit more settled in, I expect Sarri to start making bolder selections. He's cleared away some players that didn't fit his system, Victor Moses and Gary Cahill for example, and is starting to build a team identity from within.

"He might want to acquire players he is familiar with, but he also doesn't get too involved in that department, so he will focus on the players at hand that fit his vision. Trying Hazard at the false nine was one of the first Sarri-ball moves, even if Alvaro Morata's struggles played a part.

"When Sarri was hired, late into the summer, I fully expected there to be some hiccups to start the year. Especially since most of the team wasn't tailored for him. Fast forward to now, despite some recent struggles, there have been less hiccups than I expected. Top four was the main goal at the beginning—and still is now."

Miss out on a Champions League spot and Sarri will certainly come under increased pressure for his second season at Stamford Bridge, but the club have faith in his philosophy and will give him the time to prove his tactical nous can turn them back into Premier League title contenders.