Nathaniel Chalobah told us it would be this way.
In 2015, Chelsea loaned him to Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli and he discovered a whole new world of football. He didn’t play much, but he learned a lot. It was, in his words, “the biggest turning point” of his career.
One of the things he learned the hard way was that Sarri is particular about his dead-ball plays. Very particular.
“I got there and I’d never practiced a throw-in in my life and I got there and they had about ten different signals, so they gave me a sheet of paper on my first day to study these signals.
“I’ve gone, ‘What? Sorry?’ They said, ‘yeah, you have to study the signals for the throw-ins because the midfielders are involved.’ So at this point I am lost and like I said, again he got really impatient with me because he expected me to pick up quite quickly. I used to stand behind Hamšík and follow what he’s doing. I don’t think I picked it up until about two months, because there were so many signals, so many throw-ins, so many corners and you had to be in the exact place that he wanted you to be in.”
-Nathaniel Chalobah; July 2018
It was then that Nat found out why they often called Sarri “Mister 33” in Italy. Legend has it that he prepared and expected his players at Sansovino to memorize 33 set plays to use in dead ball situations. But while that moniker makes a great story, in his first few weeks in England we’ve haven’t heard or seen much evidence of moves straight from the training ground, as they say. My assumption is that he’s been too busy installing and teaching all the other elements of his idiosyncratic style of football.
But now, three months into his tenure, we’re starting to get glimpses of it. Willian dutifully holds up various amounts of hands and fingers on corner kicks, although it’s difficult to decipher exactly what they mean since they all end up terrible and wasted. On kickoffs we’ve seen Chelsea pass back then immediately kick a deep ball down the left flank.
But against Southampton, in our last match before the break, we saw perhaps our clearest indication yet. The Willian free kick to a looping Olivier Giroud, with David Luiz setting the screen, had Sarri’s planning all over it. He perhaps drew it up less spectacularly than Giroud’s scissor kick assist to Ross Barkley, but that’s Olivier for ya.
After the 3-0 win over Saints, the Chelsea striker confirmed that Sarri’s playbook is starting to feature in Chelsea’s preparations.
“Basically if I’m here, he will tell me to be there. He’s so precise and he wants us to be very focused on every moment of the game and what we have to do. The small details, for him, are so important. We are working a lot on tactics, on the pitch and off the pitch with videos.”
“Franco [Zola] and Marco [Ianni], the assistants, remind you about the set-pieces because the coach is very focused on that and he’s right, because we can win points on set pieces, and after that we know what we have to do on the pitch so he just asks you if you’re ready and pushes you always. He’s very passionate and you have to give everything when you go onto the pitch...”
-Olivier Giroud; source: Chelsea FC
However many set pieces Sarri may have in his little black book these days, surely we’ve seen but a handful so far. No better time than Saturday to unveil a few surprises then!