In August 2015, Nathaniel Chalobah got off the plane in Naples wearing a jacket and blue jeans and was rocked by the Mediterranean heat of southern Italy. It was the beginning of what he calls “the biggest turning point of my career”.
Not because his new club, Napoli, had state of the art facilities, because they didn’t. Not because the people and his teammates were so easy-going and welcoming, although they were. And not because it would be the last of his six loans as a Chelsea player.
It was because of the innovative, demanding, disciplined but friendly “Mister” at the top of the football food chain — Maurizio Sarri.
Back in May, in an episode of James Richardson’s Golazzo podcast, Chalobah, now at Watford, sat down with the other host of the podcast, James Horncastle, for a long interview about his year at Napoli, and what the experience was like from a personal and a professional point of view. But most of all, he talked about Sarri and how the new Chelsea head coach showed him a whole new world of football.
“He was a nice guy but he was very into his work and like I said, tactically he knew how to set the team up and how to try to stop the opposition and it was something that we worked on every single day in training. And for me it was new because I went into training thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to play small-sided games, it’s going to be a lot of physicality and everything else’ and it was just all technical, sessions were about 40 minutes, and you were done and inside.
“It was ‘This is how I want you to play, this is how you’re going to play, this is how you beat this team, this is how you beat that team, this is how you stop this team’.
So far, that sounds like what you’d expect from any top coach. But Sarri took it a step further, with huge attention paid to detail.
“That’s down to the manager because of the play-throughs that he goes through and the way he wants the team to play. He’s very clear on how he wants things done and if I played a pass and it trickled in to someone he goes crazy. If someone plays a pass and it’s slow, he goes ‘I want it quicker’. And that shows week in and week out when they play games, it’s great stuff to watch. Like I said, it’s down the to the manager, do it his way and if you do it right obviously you’ll reap the rewards.”
In fact, the detail was more than Chalobah could handle at first. The best example is set plays. Sarri is sometimes referred to as “Mister 33”, because that’s how many different set plays he reportedly had mapped out for his team while coaching at Sansovino. As a newcomer, the Chelsea loanee was overwhelmed.
“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.”
Then there’s the pressing. Sarri’s Napoli sometimes pressed and sometimes didn’t. But that wasn’t an ad hoc decision, at the whim of the players. It was rigidly planned, with Sarri’s typical attention to detail.
And it worked so well that Chalobah absorbed it into his style of play and continues to do it to this day, at Watford.
“On the defensive side of things, in the formation that we played, it was when to press and when you don’t press. And it was almost like there was a line in the middle of the pitch, it wasn’t drawn on there but it was like a marker for you to know whether you go or whether you don’t.
“And when I did it, it worked out. So when I came back to England and we played in games, I used that method still and literally it’s what I still use now and it’s something I picked up but it’s also something that I learned.
“It was a time for me to learn about positioning, to actually study the game.”
If all of this makes it sound like Sarri is an overbearing taskmaster, Chalobah would beg to differ. While the coach is intense and sometimes given to handing out a scolding, he was also approachable and friendly.
“He’s a great manager, technically he’s probably up there, one of the best I’ve seen, and I’ve worked with.
“But in terms of man his management, I think he was pretty good with the group of boys he was working with because in Italy there’s about eleven players on the bench and it’s very hard to keep everyone happy. But he had conversations here and there with players and if you stepped into his office he was more than open to have a conversation with you.
“He helped me when I got there first because I had a few conversations with him in terms of what I need to do and he lost his patience with me a few times when he was trying to explain something and I didn’t understand and I’m just looking at him like, “Oop, I don’t know what to do.” But yeah, it was OK in the end.”
So far, Sarri has only coached in Italy and Napoli is the biggest club he’s managed. He took them far, within an eyelash of the scudetto last season. But the Premier League is bigger and harder than Serie A and Chelsea are notorious for having high expectations.
Some people naturally wonder if Sarri can make the jump. Chalobah, who got the impression that Sarri spends his evenings at home analyzing opponents, has no doubts that he’s prepared for England, although he allows that it might take some time for him to install his system.
“He’s got the ability to drive his team, whichever team he’s at, he’s got the ability to get the best out of the players and to get them playing good football on the football pitch. I think everyone’s seen it and he’s a great guy as well. And I think he will do well if he came into the Premier League.”
Honestly, it’s hard not to get excited by reading (or listening, there’s more than we have room for here and it’s all very good) this stuff.
Chelsea might start off slowly as the players learn Sarrismo. But it sounds very much like the payoff will be sweet indeed.
GOLAZZO— TotallyFootballShow (@TheTotallyShow) May 16, 2018
On the latest #Golazzo, @JamesHorncastle talks to @WatfordFC midfielder @chalobah about his 2015 loan spell at @en_sscnapoli:
️ Listen and Subscribe https://t.co/k0T1IGh1gp
This week Chelsea welcomed a new player to Cobham, too, Jorginho. He came here from Napoli, of course. Coincidentally, his first season there was Chalobah’s loan year.
And I don’t think it’s too strong to say that Nathaniel was gobsmacked by what he saw.
“You’ve got Jorginho who a lot of people wouldn’t have heard of before, because he just came from Verona, Hellas Verona, and I’ve seen him in training and he plays one-touch and two touches the whole training session and I’ve never seen anything like it.
“And at this point I’m staring at him thinking, ‘Oh my god, what a player, and nobody knows of him?’ So now when there’s like rave reviews about him, I knew this was coming. He’s an unbelievable character, great guy, always smiling, always happy, and I roomed with him a few times towards the end of my time at Napoli, he was my roommate and I had so much fun with him.”
Wow. I can’t wait to see the Sarri-Jorginho machine when it’s fully up and running.
This is going to be fun.