The season still has a long way to go but Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri passed a tough test by beating Newcastle 1-2 in an away match. Sarri-ball means Sarri’s side has to get results through an entertaining brand of football and it happened in the 90 minutes of football we saw at St James’ Park. The Blues controlled the game through ball possession (an impressive 80%), as their coach preaches, and through a constant ball circulation all around the defensive fortress– call it catenaccio if you want – built by the pragmatic Rafael Benítez, Sarri’s predecessor at Napoli.
Although deep-lying midfielder Jorginho made his mark by completing as many as 158 passes – more than all Newcastle’s players combined – it was Eden Hazard that resulted to have been a key part into Chelsea’s victory.
The Belgian’s effort has been pivotal in Chelsea’s playing style for a tactical point of view too.
First and foremost, Sarri is suited to have his team facing strong resistance with opposition teams defending so deep in their own territory. It regularly happened in Italy too. The way Sarri used to beat this defensive approach and to get channels in the opponents’ banks is the utilisation of the lateral chains.
Sarri’s lateral play
A lateral chain is a combination of two or three outside players. In Sarri’s 4-3-3, the lateral chain features full-back, interior midfielder and winger playing on the same side. So, against Newcastle, Chelsea’s chains featured César Azpilicueta, N’Golo Kanté and Pedro on the right flank with Marcos Alonso, Mateo Kovacic and Hazard lined up on the opposite side.
Chelsea – as Napoli before – was instructed by their coach to play through the lateral chains, with the wingers ready to draw opposing full-backs in one-to-one situations. With these wingers ready to cut inside, occupying their respective half-space, opposing full-backs have a decision to make, i.e. follow the wingers and face them in dangerous individual duels or let them run free trying to absorb Napoli’s overlapping full-backs.
Triangulations between the three members of Sarri’s lateral chains are usually on his tactical approach and Chelsea made no exception. These ball circulations are pivotal in Sarri-ball as they make Sarri’s side able to manipulate the opposition defensive structure in order to find gaps to be exploited through.
That said, some differences have been evident from Sarri’s utilisation of these chains with Napoli and with Chelsea if we take a deep look at the Blues’ performances against Newcastle.
Above all, Chelsea looked more balanced than Sarri’s Napoli when it comes to attack. In fact, under Sarri, Napoli’s attacks were heavily left-oriented, with left-back Faouzi Ghoulam, interior midfielder Marek Hamsik and left-winger Lorenzo Insigne being charged to carry the majority of Napoli’s offensive phase.
Their movement and ball circulation often created access to the left-half-space and to the zone in front of the opposition’s backline, but it also allowed them to get enough space to provide efficient diagonal passes towards the opposite’s half-space or directly to José Callejón, the right-winger, scored a lot of goals exploiting diagonal passes produced by Hamsik or Insigne to the weak-side.
The basic movement involving the left chain’s players, usually saw Hamsik and the cutting inside Insigne occupy the left half-space at different depths. In the meantime, left-back Ghoulam provided width by pushing up front on his flank.
Having two players to cover in a half-space whilst another one was pushing up front wide open with a perfect timing, created large gaps between the opponents’ lines of midfield and defence with the consequence to manipulate rivals’ central compactness.
Hazard’s performance scrutinised
However, against the Magpies, the left chain’s work wasn’t perfect, although Hazard’s performance was more than brilliant.
Sarri spent his pre-match press conference arguing that the Belgian wasn’t fit enough to play more than 60 minutes. Instead, he lasted on the field the whole game. Hazard roamed through the whole 90 minutes of play, drifting infield from his usual left position.
That said, his constant movements were reshaping Chelsea’s basic 4-3-3 in a way Insigne never did at Napoli. Often, we have seen the Belgian winger playing on the opposite flank or moving himself into the right half-space, combining with Pedro.
Sarri celebrated Hazard’s performance in the post-game press conference, arguing that the 27-year old attacking winger had played very well. It was an expected statement, but Hazard’s display – no matter how good it was and as important it has been to grab the three points – looked a bit not so functional to his manager’s game plan.
Basically, Hazard didn’t operate as a classic, ordered, left-winger in a Sarri’s 4-3-3 but as an attacking forward playing wide open. He didn’t act as a piece of an orchestra but as a player charged to break Newcastle’s deep defence by himself.
Hazard’s movements have been unconventional for Sarri’s side, especially if you compare them to the ones made by Insigne with Napoli. The Italian international too was allowed a certain degree of freedom but this freedom was still limited by Sarri’s offensive mechanism. Basically, Insigne was free to roam between the left wide area and the left half space. When occupying the left half-space, Insigne linked the play with Hamsik, sometimes playing the ball with Drees Mertens up front.
Surely, Benítez knows Sarri and this explains why the Spaniard lined up the Magpies in a five-man back line. It was an unusual formation for Newcastle’s manager – and Sarri highlighted it admitting that he never saw Rafa play with five at the back – but it was a shape designed to deny Chelsea’s access to depth.
This setup, combined with Hazard’s anarchic movements, contributed to Chelsea’s troubles in getting access to Álvaro Morata and on creating a number of scoring chances adequate to the ball possession they had.
At the end, Chelsea grabbed the deserved three points after dominating the game. Their offensive performance has been good, but some flaws still remain to be fixed. Hazard is the best offensive player at Sarri’s disposal and he usually has benefited of some freedom under the previous regime. The Belgian produced one goal and two assists so far, also being the most dangerous offensive player on the roster with 1.16 in terms of expected goals (xG) and with 3.90 key passes per game.
By the way, Sarri needs to better accord Hazard’s play with the rest of the team in the way to get more scoring chances from Chelsea’s ball possession. Otherwise, the Italian manager could adjust his offensive approach giving Hazard more freedom than what he usually allowed to his player within his coaching career. It would be a news for him.