Maurizio Sarri has got Eden Hazard, Chelsea playing without Conte's handbrake
Eight games, seven wins, one draw. As starts go for a manager fresh to English football, Maurizio Sarri's has certainly been eye-catching.
Alongside the undoubtedly positive results, the rapid installation of his preferred style of play has been extraordinary and is already starting to justify the Chelsea board's decision to sever ties with Antonio Conte. Ultimately though, the move will only be thoroughly vindicated once major trophies start rolling through the door.
In his defence, Conte would surely point to the Premier League title that he won in his first year in England -- but he must be secretly impressed by how quickly Sarri has changed things.
Even so, the new man in charge is unlikely to replicate his compatriot's immediate success due to the development of Chelsea's principal rivals in the meantime.
One thing Sarri already has over his predecessor is that his players appear to be buying into his philosophy, unequivocally. Perhaps that is not much of a surprise given the dressing-room acrimony in the final months of Conte's reign. The negativity surrounding the club from the boardroom to the terraces had become poisonous, and as fondly as Conte is remembered for the passion for his work as well as winning two trophies, the fresh breeze now blowing through Stamford Bridge is extremely welcome.
Not only do the players seem to be playing with smiles on their faces, but there is also genuine joy in their play, with individuals given license to try things within a looser framework than under the previous regime. While the approach is intricate and still requires energy and tactical discipline, the players are not pigeonholed. The handbrake has definitely been removed. The overarching philosophy is to defend by denying the opposition the ball. It isn't a new theory, and it is not easy to implement, yet the early signs are encouraging at Chelsea.
Ultimately, the key to judging Sarri's reign will be the effectiveness of his approach. After all, there is little point in dominating possession if you can't find the back of the net. Conversely, the opposition can't score if they don't have the ball. Striking the balance will be key, and to date the outcome has been largely positive. Encouragingly, Chelsea's position at the top of the passing charts is complemented by being second only to Manchester City in the amount of shots at goal they have had.
Typically, in this age of entitlement and demands for instant flawless gratification, there have been grumbles among a few Chelsea fans on social media, sparked by the goalless draw at West Ham. Comparisons to Arsenal's various toothless teams over the past decade were made by some; an exceptionally harsh judgement on a side that dropped its first points of the season against a well-organised team in a high intensity away fixture that has always tested the Blues. Some of the frustration at being unable to convert possession into goals was understandable, although Sarri's start should already have bought him some credit, while the more reasonable fan should accept that there will be teething troubles when a radically different system is being implemented.
Some of the apathy among that minority is probably due to the striking departure from the DNA that has marked out the previous successful Chelsea sides in the Roman Abramovich era. Teams under Jose Mourinho and Conte had built from a solid defensive base and were largely reactive rather than proactive. That isn't to say they couldn't be expressive, even thrilling, but pragmatism was always more important than adventure.
If nothing else, the freedom that the new manager and system has afforded to Eden Hazard has paid instant dividends. The Belgian has been one of the best players in the world for a few years, and his performance at the World Cup elevated him into the rarefied level occupied by the elite. In his performances for Chelsea this season, with almost all defensive responsibilities removed, he seems to have improved his game even further through a series of sublime, unplayable displays (with the exception of a blip at West Ham). His goal at Anfield on Wednesday night was nothing short of genius, and the joy with which he is currently playing suggests that maybe he might just sign a new contract at Chelsea rather than seek a move to Real Madrid. Should Hazard stay, it will almost certainly be Sarri that Chelsea fans will have to thank.
There are still flaws to iron out, most notably transitioning from attack into defence once the high press is beaten and the full-backs are caught upfield. There is also the conundrum of the central striker to solve so as not to burden Hazard with all the goal scoring. But, generally, the early signs for Sarri's reign are hugely positive, and as time passes and the players become more attuned with his demands, things should only get better.