Chelsea’s first loss of the season was a devastating one, for several reasons.
It came against arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur. It was a pounding. Nobody played well. Jorginho was easily marked out of the game, for the second match in a row. And it raised the first significant doubts about the wisdom of Sarrismo.
The underlying issues have been present for some time and Sarri never shied away from acknowledging them as a work in progress, but on Saturday, they were laid bare for all to see.
[15:19] GOAL Spurs— Sébastien (@SebC__) November 24, 2018
One thing that has bugged me with that full zonal in midfield, is Jorginho (it's not about him, it's the system) having to make baseball like home runs to close down people
Beaten with a simple pass, caught wrong side of Kane (anyone reads my tweets?). Boom ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/ohY0GnFipF
A common refrain centers on Jorginho, his role, and how opponents are targeting him. Some tried this earlier in the season — Italy vs. Poland comes to mind — but the strategy has begun to bear obvious fruit and thus everyone has caught on.
“Maurizio Sarri’s secret is out. Stop Jorginho and you stop his Chelsea team. Now he needs a Plan B.”
There’s one man who doesn’t share these doubts. Not surprisingly, it’s Maurizio Sarri. Post-match, he was cleared-eyed about the “disaster” we’d all just witnessed. But his cure isn’t a change of tactics. His prescription is more and better training — and the buy-in from the players to subscribe to the notion that hard work is the only way forward. There is no fun without the work.
“It’s clear. I knew very well that we had a lot of problems to solve and I think that today it was clear for everybody. I hope first of all for the players, because I told them in the last few weeks that we had a problem in the approach to the match, and today it was the same approach. [...] Tactically we have a lot of work, a lot of problems to solve. I knew it very well before this match and I think it is clear for everybody and I hope for the players.”
“We have to work in training I think. You know it is difficult. We don’t have a lot of time, we have to train in two days. So we don’t have time to improve the team, the single player, we only have time to prepare for the next match.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Football.London
For Sarri, the problem isn’t tactics, it’s the execution.
Former players (who speak glowingly of him) make that point repeatedly.
“Sarri is a perfectionist but in a good way. If you miss a pass by 10cm, he looks for ways to improve you. His idea is that the team should memorise what they should do. During every session you go over the same script while having fun. His view is that training should never be too long, you must always have the ball at your feet and the defensive line must be perfect. Off the pitch he’s a marvellous person; on the pitch he’s very demanding.”
-Ronaldo Vanin (played for Sarri at Sorrento)
Training, and developing and testing his system over a decade of climbing his way up the ladder of Italian football, has given Sarri an unshakeable confidence that his is the right way.
“Every day I follow the training sessions and I’ll tell you one thing: Maurizio is capable of a magic trick. During every session he transmits his knowledge of football, his idea, to every player. He defends his choice to play offensive football regardless of the opponent.”
“...When he joined Napoli I asked myself: ‘Will Maurizio be able to convince champions with his ideas?’ But I found out after sending a few text messages that after two days he had a very strong bond with Gonzalo Higuaín and I figured he would be a success.”
-Fabrizio Corsi, Empoli president
We’ve already learned at Chelsea that Sarri’s style — relaxed and approachable off the pitch, respectfully but firmly insistent on it — has improved the atmosphere at Cobham.
“Maurizio knows how to give you confidence in your ability but he is also with you every step of the road, checking on how you are doing, noticing what you are doing right and wrong. The consistency and quality of the training sessions are remarkable and players respect him.”
-Massimo Maccarone (played for Sarri at Empoli)
But the key here is that it’s not just about morale, it’s about getting players to buy in and execute.
“But players love Sarri because he makes working for him fun and his other big secret is getting into players’ minds. He expects you to work like you would during the match. He’s like a maniac; every detail is addressed carefully and those who don’t give their all in training are lost.”
-Daniele Croce (played for Sarri at Alessandria, Sorrento and Empoli)
Training is the foundation upon which Sarri-ball is built, but despite Chelsea being four months into the season, Maurizio Sarri has had precious little of it. He had a pre-season shortened by a late arrival, World Cup players arriving even later, and travel to Australia. And since the season itself began, Sarri hasn’t had an uninterrupted week in which to work since the beginning of September, thanks to the double-edged sword of cup wins and European commitments.
It’s no wonder that he doesn’t believe his team is anywhere close to fully adopting his ideas. And it’s no surprise that until they do, he’ll see that — and not his tactics — as the primary reason for failure.
A loss brings out the critics. That’s way of it. But we shouldn’t expect Sarri to heed them. At 59 years of age, with experience forged in the wilderness of the Italian lower leagues, the heat of relegation-threatened clubs, and the scrutiny of Naples, he knows pressure.
And he knows what he wants.