Chelsea's 'Sarri-ball' revolution is well underway in tough preseason schedule
NICE, France -- Watching the prematch warm ups at the Allianz Riviera on Saturday, the bold new footballing territory that Chelsea are entering under Maurizio Sarri was immediately apparent.
The outfield starters were divided into two teams of five, placed in a small square of cones and tasked with keeping the ball under pressure. It is a standard training exercise and one often used by Antonio Conte -- though not quite like this. Speed of thought and foot was everything, with Chelsea's players clearly instructed to combine quick decisions with one-touch passes wherever possible.
When executed well it is devastating, and Chelsea's best moments against Inter came during a first half in which their intensity matched their ambition. Marcos Alonso and Davide Zappacosta surged beyond Callum Hudson-Odoi and Pedro Rodriguez on either flank, while Ross Barkley and Cesc Fabregas probed pockets of space more centrally in front of Jorginho, the master of tempo and direction.
It is remarkable to see how quickly the core principles of "Sarri-ball" have become established in a Chelsea side so recently prepared to "suffer" out of possession. Double training sessions have focused as much on tactical as physical preparation, with Sarri rehearsing attacking movements every bit as meticulously as Conte drilled defensive shape.
The centre-backs are the only pure defenders in Sarri's 4-3-3 system, and even they are encouraged to play the first forward pass from closer to the halfway line than their own penalty area. But it is Jorginho in front of them who has been the transformative element, just as he was under Sarri at Napoli.
After completing 98 passes in just 45 minutes against Perth Glory it was telling that he was the only player left on the field for the full 90 against Inter, unerringly practising what his coach preaches even as Chelsea collectively lost their fluidity and coherence in a second half dominated by substitutions.
"He's a fantastic player, I'm so happy to play with him," David Luiz said of Jorginho. "He's top, top class. He always wants the ball, he's always in good space, always creates a line to pass. He knows already the philosophy of our coach, so I'm so happy to have this kind of player in our team."
It was, Sarri said, just a "normal match" for Jorginho, who appears to combine the 360-degree awareness of Sergio Busquets at the base of midfield with the relentless desire to find a forward pass. "For this way of football, Jorginho is a wonderful player," Chelsea's new head coach said simply.
Others are still learning what Sarri wants, and as a group they do not yet boast the muscle memory or the energy levels to execute his style for more than short bursts. "This evening we moved the ball well, but I think not at the right speed," he said. "You have to move the ball at a great speed on the floor, otherwise we risk playing for 90 minutes with 75 percent of possession but without scoring. So we have to improve on this."
There are also more specific questions in defence, where Sarri's shift to a back four has upended Conte's established pecking order. Victor Moses is once again viewed as a winger and Cesar Azpilicueta a full-back, while Alonso and Zappacosta, starters against Inter, both have their issues positionally.
Time may yield solutions, but time is short for Chelsea this preseason. A friendly against Arsenal in Dublin on Wednesday represents one final pressure-free audition for Sarri before a Community Shield clash against Pep Guardiola's Manchester City at Wembley on Sunday that, one way or another, will invite more strident conclusions about the viability of his vision.
Sarri will not spend a minute on the training pitch with three of Chelsea's best players, Eden Hazard, N'Golo Kante and Thibaut Courtois, until after the Wembley trip, while the frantic final run towards the Premier League's Aug. 9 transfer deadline still retains the potential to significantly bolster or weaken his squad, regardless of whether or not he is interested in such matters.
Chelsea are braced for pain on and off the pitch in the early stages of the process but for Roman Abramovich, watching the Inter game from an executive box in the Allianz Riviera alongside club director and trusted advisor Marina Granovskaia, Sarri's footballing ideology surely looked even more tantalising than on the day he was hired.
There are already tentative signs that the Italian is capable of reproducing the alchemy that made Napoli the most thrilling team in Europe and, in doing so, catapult Chelsea to the tactical and stylistic frontier of the sport.
Ultimately, though, his fate will be determined by the same thing that makes or breaks all coaches at top clubs: Engagement. Both from the players at his disposal now and the ones he will meet in the coming days and weeks.
"A new philosophy always takes time, but it also depends on us," Luiz admitted. "If we are dedicated every day and doing things every single day in training, especially in this beginning with these friendly games, we can try to learn quickly. It depends also on us."