Chelsea Sarriball Tactical Analysis

Sarriball system is composed of three crucial elements which Chelsea’s new manager is instilling in the team’s style of play:

  1. Vertical tiki-taka: That is the tiki-taka with short and quick passes meant to move play far up the pitch as early as possible. The system is resulting in less backward passing than is what Chelsea used to. By switching to 4-3-3 the central defence reduced from three to two, which also reduced the backward passing options already.
  2. Playmaking from the midfield, build up from the back: As it implies, the backline will form the initial phase of the build-up with the fullbacks staying low until the play transits to the midfield where there will be triangular passing to maintain the possession and dictate the flow.
  3. Fore-pressing: Players are now fore-pressing opponents with the cover of three central midfielders behind the back. Having players in the final third also allows quick penetration and keeping the play forward and vertical.

Chelsea F.C is just 450 minutes into the new system so far and the players seem to be adapting well to the aforementioned elements of Sarriball. However, the recent 2-0 loss in FA Community Shield against the league leaders, Manchester City, clearly indicated some unsettled tactical components of Chelsea’s 4-3-3 set up which are still hindering the team to be completely pro Sarriball. Let’s take a look at what key adjustments the Blues need to keep evolving in total harmony with Sarriball.

A vertical defensive set up

The foremost tactical adjustment which Chelsea’s recent set up requires is to execute its off-the-ball formation especially the midfield in a vertical manner too rather than a flat midline during the defensive transitions. In other words, the midline should be deployed in a V shape, with Jorginho at the base of it, when being off the ball too and not just when playing the 4-3-3 passing game when on-the-ball.

In the Community Shield fixture, City mostly played either long balls or through passes across Chelsea’s press structure in the midfield and in both cases the opponent players found the space between the defence and midfield all open to playing their moves. Chelsea even conceded both the goals due to the same reason.

Chelsea Sarriball tactical analysis
Chelsea forepress structure led open space behind Chelsea’s midfield for the opponent midfielders conceding Chelsea the first goal.
Chelsea Sarriball tactical analysis
With so much space behind Chelsea’s midline during the defensive transition, City made it through and Chelsea conceded the second goal.

Mostly these gaps between Chelsea’s midfield and the back conceded when the midfield got close to the forward players and wingers to assist them in fore-pressing and attacking moves, thus leaving a huge space behind it. Since City was quick to react with any of the won balls, the gap between Chelsea’s flat lines during defence got exploited well either by long balls or through passes. The same flat mid-line structure also costed Chelsea to be unable to press many of the long passes played by City. Even when Chelsea somehow won the first ball, they ultimately lost the second ball to City since the opponent midfielder quickly got into the spaces between the lines to win as shown in the match-shot below. Chelsea could have dealt with this by setting up in a vertical V-shaped fashion with Jorginho at its base during the defensive transitions too just like he does it during the attacking phases.

Chelsea Sarriball tactical analysis
Rudiger won the first ball but as there was a huge gap beyond Chelsea defence, City player won the second ball.

Another position where Chelsea needs to ensure staying vertically compact during the defensive transitions is their attacking midfield. Against City, as Chelsea’s frontline pressed City backline, this pushed the opposition defence back and so Chelsea’s frontline, which conceded gaps between the frontline and midfield. Since Chelsea players were already off the ball in these occasions, City quickly exploited that space and beyond via threaded balls. Thus, to execute the defensive version of Sarriball in a vertical fashion, the attacking midfielder should be ahead of his midline mates to fall into that gap when off the ball.

Chelsea Sarriball tactical analysis
A gap behind Chelsea forepressing structure exploited by City.

It’s not just the case against City even though that’s how Guardiola’s men work – targeting spaces either short or long. But against other teams too, especially the teams which would hit back on transitions, Chelsea needs to deploy their defensive formation vertically to keep evolving with Sarriball. In other words, the defensive positions of Jorginho and the attacking midfielder should be vertically arranged, instead of them staying flat – or worse moving up the backline towards the mid-line to reduce the gap.

Chelsea Sarriball tactical analysis
Chelsea’s preferred defensive positions

A solid left-back

To introduce 3-man central midfield, Sarri also had to adjust Chelsea backline accordingly. He could either go with 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 for this and he chose the later. While 3-5-2 can intensify the defence centrally, the wing-backs often tend to be isolated either from the defence or from the attack when they were needed due to lack of physicality. This caused the wing-back model failed and overburdened the advanced players and wingers with defensive responsibilities. On the other hand, with 4-3-3 there can be low-staying full backs protecting the width of the initial third and the goal area. One Sarriball-friendly offensive advantage of having strong fullbacks will be to freely stretch the play at the wide by extending access to the flanks beyond the final third up to the goal line width.

Chelsea Sarriball tactical analysis
Hudson-Odoi’s position giving Chelsea access to flanks towards the goal line width.

Fortunately, Chelsea displayed a more stretched play and an enhanced access to the flanks and goal-line width in the pre-season fixtures played so far. But to freely access these wide regions consistently including the transitional phases, Chelsea’s frontline especially the wingers need solid defensive cover from the fullbacks. Currently, Azpilicueta is the only veteran fullback at the right. But the left-back Alonso who is more of a wing-back or winger is defensively not enough to provide this freedom to the wingers mainly during the transitions. As a result, Chelsea may no longer enjoy this enhanced access to the wings as the competition goes by. Chelsea thus needs a physical left-back who can enable the team to keep adapting to Sarriball.

A dominating attacking midfielder

Another tactical adjustment the Sarriball set up needs to keep evolving is the role of attacking midfielder in connecting the midfield and attack. While Jorginho is able to handle the defensive transitions well from the defensive half, Chelsea needs an attacking midfielder who could smoothly execute attacking transitions in the advanced regions of the pitch.

This is also called for many of the situations ahead in the season when the team’s passing play would get stuck in the midfield due to Sarri’s emphasis on surrounding on-the-ball region with nearly positioned players to provide multiple passing options to the ball carrier. As a result of this stuck play, the attack doesn’t execute well leading to the loss in possession eventually.

Again, in the Community Shield clash, Chelsea’s frontline had to pull back helping the midfield to match City’s 4-1-4-1 midfield in numbers and the passing flow in that region. This caused the front line to cover now the much greater distance ahead of them after getting the possession, which also gave time to the opponents to organise the defence. With no dominating attacking midfielder, Chelsea couldn’t set up the attack in that case and instead had to carry out the attacking moves in a somewhat haphazardly.

Chelsea Sarriball tactical analysis
To match City’s midfield in numbers Chelsea’s frontline dropped back with midfield compressing the playing area with so much distance ahead of them to cover with the ball now.

In fact, since the last two or more years Chelsea are lacking a consistent attacking midfielder who would set the play up for them and target the spaces. The club in dire need of an attacking midfielder who could creatively move the play from the attacking midfield to the final third and also help in instant attacking transitions. Fabregas often seemed to be in that role under Conte but his position in a 3-4-3 formation burdened him with defensive responsibilities. Pedro is another good fit for this role with Willian ahead of him on the wings. Both Fabregas and Pedro are Barcelona’s tiki-taka material and are suitable to assume an attacking midfielder role. But either of them in the attacking midfield would further induce the need of another competent defensive midfielder alongside Jorginho, or a versatile box to box midfielder like Kante. The two just displayed a promising defensive midfield partnership in the ICC fixture against Lyon.

Conclusion

Overall Chelsea is showing good adaptability in keeping the game vertical and forward in the offensive half. There is very less incidence of backward passing unlike the last season and more exhibition of an attacking mindset. Even though it’s too early to evaluate, a fair explanation of the Sarriball set up and the possible scenarios can be deduced, according to which Chelsea needs to (i) vertically arrange the defensive positions of its midfielders, (ii) a solid left-back, and (iii) a dominating attacking midfielder – all to become pro-Sarriball.