With Maurizio Sarri taking charge of Chelsea this season we have seen a drastic change in their playing style from that favoured by Antonio Conte. Gone is the 3-5-2 formation as Sarri has brought his favoured 4-3-3 formation with him that proved so successful with Napoli in Serie A. Sarri has managed to swiftly implement his style of quick ball circulation, enabled by one and two touch passes. Another key principle to enable quick ball circulation is limiting the amount of dribbling that his side attempt, instead passing the ball through the pitch in as few touches as possible.
Antonio Conte’s preferred 3-5-2 formation deployed for most of the 2017/18 season and Sarri’s preferred 4-3-3 starting line-up.
Since Maurizio Sarri’s arrival, Chelsea have not overhauled the squad as many people predicted would happen in order to adapt to the new demands placed on the players. Only two players were signed in the summer with Kepa Arrizabalaga and Jorginho joining the club. Interestingly both players are important in the build-up phase of Chelsea’s play. Whilst the signing of Arrizabalaga was brought more out of necessity due to Thibault Courtois joining Real Madrid, Sarri immediately highlighted Jorginho as his main target and managed to convince him to reject the advances of Man City.
The change in possession
Last season Chelsea averaged 55.4% possession in comparison to this season where the figure stands at 65.7%. Another interesting change is the increase in pass completion which has risen from 84.3% to 88.8%. This is made possible by the positioning of the players and the willingness to maintain possession in the tightest of areas. It is now a common sight to see Chelsea’s defenders attempting to play the ball out from defence instead of playing a long ball forward. This makes David Luiz an important player for Sarri as he is confident in possession and able to pass in tight spaces.
Such has been the scale of change, that Chelsea have five of the top ten players in the league for passes completed so far this season. At the end of the 2017/18 season, only one Chelsea player featured in the top ten (Cesar Azpilicueta) and only three players were in the top twenty.
The Key Man
Jorginho is the key player in all of Chelsea’s build up play. He averages 114.8 passes per game, with a total of 689 passes in this time. To give some sort of context to this stat the player with the next highest number of passes is Aymeric Laporte of Manchester City who has amassed 592 passes.
Jorginho plays as the 6 in Sarri’s system and is the playmaker in the Chelsea side. He will sit behind the other midfielders offering a constant passing option in order to maintain possession. He constantly looks to play passes forward when he receives possession to one of the more advanced players. The tempo at which Chelsea play is often set by Jorginho as the majority of his passes are short and played within one or two touches. When he receives the ball with his back to goal from one of the centre-backs he will often play a one-touch lay off to a supporting teammate, whether that be the opposite centre-back or a fullback to maintain the tempo in their play.
Not only does he operate centrally he is also expected to provide a passing option across the entire width of the pitch. When the ball is switched across to the right-hand side of the pitch he moves across to the right halfspace to provide a passing option and vice versa when the ball is on the left. This allows both of Chelsea’s 8’s to play further up the pitch.
Here we can see Chelsea’s starting positions when they have a goal kick. Sarri prefers his two wide players to play in the halfspaces with the width provided by the two fullbacks.
Arrizabalaga will try to play the ball into either centre back or Jorginho as his first option. In the first situation, the centre-backs will look to pass the ball into Jorginho who as discussed earlier is the playmaker of this side. He will look to progress the ball through the field via short passes in the centre of the pitch. This will normally be done by looking to pass the ball into one of their 8’s or either Hazard or Willian/Pedro who are positioned between the lines.
We can see in this situation that West Ham are retreating into their own defensive shape leaving the passing option to either centre back. Rudiger, in this case, receives the ball and passes into Jorginho, who can turn to play forwards.
If the fullbacks are left unmarked then Arrizabalaga will play an aerial ball into one of them. The fullbacks are higher up the pitch than the two centre-backs and are positioned on the touchline. This is not an ideal place to be on the pitch due to the limited amount of the field that is available on which to play in. Sarri understands this well and instructs his team to pass the ball back into the centre or ball near halfspace at the earliest opportunity. Jorginho will often move across to the ball near halfspace with the ball far 8 moving across to provide cover in the centre of the pitch. The ball near 8 moves in order to create a passing angle to receive from Jorginho or the ball possessor. This often creates a 4v3 overload in which Chelsea are able to use in order to switch the point of their attack.
Here we can see Azpilicueta has received the ball out wide from Arrizabalaga. Jorginho has moved across to receive the ball in the ball near halfspace. Kovacic is moving across from the ball far half space towards the centre of the pitch to provide balance to the side.
The Third Man Concept
The third man concept is key to Chelsea’s build-up play under Sarri. Put simply the third man concept is the idea of transferring the ball to a player who cannot currently be reached by the player in possession of the ball.
In this picture, the player indicated by the red circle is the target player (the player the side ultimately want the ball to reach). The player in possession is unable to pass him the ball due to the positioning of the white defender who is blocking the passing lane with his cover shadow. In order for the target player to receive the ball, the blue player must use the ‘link’ player (highlighted in orange) for the ball to reach him.
When a Chelsea player receives the ball with their back to goal in the build-up phase of play it is unusual to see them attempt to turn in possession. Instead, they will often play a one-touch lay off to a teammate who has a forward vision of the pitch. This enables Chelsea to circulate the ball in a quicker manner and therefore unbalance their opponents. This can be seen in the goal from the game against Liverpool where Kovacic receives a pass facing his own goal. He plays a pass into Jorginho who is facing forwards, who quickly returns the pass to Kovacic.
Sarri prefers a more vertical build-up focused on creating passing lanes into either of his two 8’s who are positioned higher up the field. His sides follow the principle of looking to play to the furthest forward player, as lines of play are often bypassed in order to find a player positioned closer to the opposition’s goal. This, however, requires clever positioning from both the striker and the centre midfielders. The centre midfielders and striker need to be aware of the positioning of each other in order to prevent the passing lane into the striker from being blocked.
In this situation, the positioning of Kante and Kovacic would be blocking the passing lane into Willian and Hazard. This makes it easy for a midfield three to prevent passes being played vertically through the centre of the pitch and force Chelsea to play passes to the less effective wide areas of the pitch.
With better spacing between the players, Jorginho now has passing options into both Hazard and Willian, behind the opposition’s midfield, alongside the option to play a pass into either of the two 8’s in order to create more space for the front players.
The use of vertical passes attracts the opponents towards the ball as they aim to ‘collapse’ on the space around the ball receiver. As pressure is applied to the player he will look to execute a lay off to a teammate facing the play. The third man in this situation aims to attack the space left behind the pressing players.
This sequence can be seen for Willian’s goal against PAOK in the Europe League where Rudiger plays a forward pass into Morata, breaking the opposition lines, who is able to play a one-touch lay off into Jorginho. He then plays the pass into Barkley who dribbles to create space for Willian before passing him the ball to finish.
There are however still areas in which their build-up play can be improved. At times they still end up sending long balls towards the striker when under little pressure instead of maintaining their composure and passing out from the back. This is something that will take time to further ingrain in the players through work on the training ground. On occasions, Jorginho is too far away from the right-hand side of the pitch to provide a passing option when the ball is switched to this side. As Kante is not as adept at perceiving these situations as Kovacic on the other side this can lead to the player on the ball becoming isolated. Overall the speed at which Sarri has managed to implement his style of build-up play on this Chelsea side has been very impressive and will only improve further with more training.