Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea started this Premier League campaign in a better manner than expected, amassing three consecutive wins out from the first three game of the season. To achieve these results, Sarri drastically changed Chelsea’s attitude and tactical philosophy from the previous regime. So, to better understand what this methodical Italian manager did, we will take a deep analysis looking at what Sarri changed from Antonio Conte’s day in terms of tactical analysis, statistics and not just.
First and foremost, from a tactical point of view, Sarri changed Chelsea’s tactical approach. Veritably, whilst – under Conte – the Blues was set to play in a deep defensive block, ready to play quick counter-attacks when in possession, with Sarri at the helm they became a more possession-oriented team. Conte was a defensive-minded coach that put emphasis on playing without the ball. His three-man backline often became a five-man defence while his attacking wingers was trained to collapse behind to build a four-man block in the middle of the park. It means Conte’s 3-4-3 attacking system resulted to be a defensive 5-4-1 formation most of the playing time.
Sarri’s Tactical Approach
The astonishing 64.7% per cent of ball possession and 89.4% in terms of pass accuracy that Sarri’s Chelsea produced so far are higher numbers than the ones the Blues posted last term under Conte. On the other side, this season Chelsea have shown some vulnerability when it comes to opposite’s the counter-attacks that is unprecedented under Conte.
This is a tactical point where Sarri needs to work: his Napoli side was more brilliant in terms of facing opposite’s counter-attacks. Sarri-ball at Napoli featured a better counter-pressing with the first goal to regain ball possession in more advanced zones of the field. When regaining the ball wasn’t possible, Napoli’s counter-pressing action still was able to force the opponents to play the ball into less dangerous areas through a smart defensive positioning.
In the first three Premier League games, this counter-pressing didn’t work so well and Sarri can legitimately be a bit concerned about it. However, this term is still young, so the Italian manager has time at his disposal to fix this thing.
Another key tactical aspect where Sarri’s Chelsea differs from Conte’s version is the height of the backline. In fact, as it has been remarked, Chelsea’s defensive line under Sarri is playing higher than it was under Conte. The main goal over there is to restrict the field for the opponents, lowering their opportunities to play in counter and increasing Chelsea’s chances to press higher up the field.
With Chelsea playing so high, the whole construction phase has been moved high up so you can see Jorginho, Chelsea’s playmaker, often touching the ball in the middle of the park. It provides Chelsea with a defensive edge too. In fact, should the Blues be dispossessed during their high build-up, the opposition’s side still have a lot of ground to run through in order to reach Kepa’s goal. It provides Sarri’s team more time to collapse behind trying to recover on the ball carrier. That said, Sarri’s defensive mindset is orientated to defend pushing up forwards when the ball is lost. The whole possession is played at a higher speed than the team did under the previous regime.
It is also obvious that playing so high in the opposite half allows Chelsea to have more players ready to be involved in the offensive phase. It means that a lot of Blues’ footballers can make their contribution in terms of goals and assists or providing the needed linking play to build a strong team’s offensive structure.
Those who benefited from Sarri’s tactics
It has benefited players usually suited to play deeper, notably left-back Marcos Alonso. Under Sarri, the Spaniard quickly became an offensive threat.
Another player that enjoyed this more offensive-orientated Chelsea has been N’Golo Kante. Previously known as a holding midfielder, excellent providing a shield in front of the backline, the world champion Frenchman has been discovered to be a good box-to-box midfielder, also dangerous when in possession.
But Sarri’s innovation has been not limited to the offensive side of the ball as the 59-year old manager changed his team’s defensive philosophy too. In fact, while Chelsea’s defenders were suited to defending by looking at the forwards’ positioning, Sarri installed a pure zonal-marking defensive system in which Blues’ backline has to care about ball positioning.
In other words, Chelsea’s four-man backline is defending depending on where the ball is and not looking at the opponents. So, Sarri’s defenders are trained to control pivotal zones, playing as a unit, maintaining shape and distances between the players forming the defensive line. Sarri favours team’s compactness. That didn’t occur under Conte where the four-man forming the backline was suited to play as individuals, reacting to opposition’s movements in a kind of man-marking oriented defensive system.
Furthermore, Sarri’s changes have been extended to the locker room. The new manager weakened the strict diet rules Chelsea’s players experimented under Conte. Sarri provided his footballers with a larger choice of food in the training centre and in hotels feeling that his players are professional enough to be able to take care of their body by themselves. Sarri thought he doesn’t need to be babysitting them in the way Conte was used to do. The former Napoli manager also allowed his players to stay at home and join the team on matchdays when playing at Stamford Bridge, while they were forced to spend the night before the game altogether at the team hotel under Conte.
These changes are not on-field tactical adjustments, but they still are ‘tactical’ improvements if you consider that tactics is every strategy planned to achieve a specific goal. Building a most enjoyable and fresh environment is a key component to look at in order to install new tactical ideas and improve players.
At this moment, Sarri already changed the way Chelsea are playing. It was a bit risky as the Blues won a Premier League and an FA Cup under Conte, so can’t say his methods were not working at Cobham. Surely, neither players nor pundits enjoyed the way team was playing under Sarri’s predecessor. Conte’s relationship with the locker room had faded so a change was needed. The Sarri-ball project still is at an early stage, but the path was mapped out. We don’t know where it will finish but appears obvious that Sarri is looking at the big picture and has clear in his own mind where he is going.