We’re two games (plus a few friendlies) into the Sarri-ball era at Chelsea, and while we’re getting to know what that means slowly but surely both on the pitch and in front of the TV screens, it might be helpful to learn a bit more about it, so we can watch and know what to look for.
To help us in that regard, here is the man himself, who, because today’s game is the first Chelsea match of the season televised on Sky Sports, sat down with them for an exclusive, and fairly revealing interview . It’s well worth your time.
One of the primary principles of Sarri’s system is ball retention, but not just possession for possession’s sake. Possession must be quick, purposeful, and precise.
“I like it when the team is in control of the match, I like very much the ball possession, I like to play in the other half.”
”Ball possession, but at a very high speed. Mental speed, first of all, not only ball possession in my half. Maybe I’ve learned it from a lot of lost matches, I think!”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Sky Sports
Sarri’s other teams’ losses are Cheslea’s gain then. Still, no tactic is perfect and Chelsea are still just coming to terms with it. And while quick, purposeful possession is an easy concept to learn, understand, and try to implement, defending in Sarrismo is a bit more advanced concept. Napoli, like Chelsea, struggled with it at first, too.
Here’s how Tiago Martins describes that in an article for Video Observer.
Napoli has one thing in mind when the opposing team has the ball: to get it back. That’s something essential in Sarri’s philosophy. As soon as the team loses the ball, they get the counter-press going, rushing as many players to the side of the ball as possible.
That can be very effective and is one of the main reasons why Napoli is dominant in possession time (57.3% – 2nd best in Serie A). However, this strategy can leave the team exposed if not executed properly. It´s very demanding in physical terms and it’s impossible to counter-press an entire game. You have to pick wisely when it’s time to counter-press and when it’s time to sit a little deeper and play a more positional defense. Napoli struggles to recognise those moments. They try to counter press all the time which leads to unorganised press, becoming easier to beat.
Even when Napoli applies the pressure at the right time, with the right organization, there is a coverage problem on the weak side. Almost all the players get involved in the pressing, rushing to the strong side (the side of the ball) and leaving the weak side totally exposed. [...] That also makes it easier to beat the pressure and gives opponents an avenue to attack without many obstacles. Worse than that, once the pressing is beaten, Napoli is totally unprepared to deal with a new point of attack. The team has to shift to the other flank and that takes time, time that quick counter-attacking teams can take advantage of.
-source: Video Observer
And no, Sarri’s isn’t going to change to a more “traditional” set of roles in defence. The fix is to improve and learn. And maybe score some more goals.
“I think it’s better. I think, if you arrive to think in this way, then it’s very easy. It depends only on you. You are not depending on the opponent. I think it’s very easy and, if you defend by looking only at the ball, you can stay very high up the pitch. In the other way, you defend on the movements of the opponent.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Telegraph
Changing from proactive defending to reactive defending would destroy the entire tactical concept, not just at the back, but for the rest of the team as well.
“I tried to play as a five-man defence six years ago, but for me it is impossible. Because if I want to press in the other half, if I want to look only at the ball with five defenders, I lose immediately the metres. [...] I think it’s easier for the offensive players. It’s usually three months, but my feeling is in this team there are a lot of intelligent players so I hope only two months.”
“It takes defenders longer because I want to defend by looking only at the ball, and some players have played for 10 years looking at the man, so you have to change the way of thinking of this player, and it’s not very easy. For a defender who is 18. It is easier, for a defender who is 30, it is more difficult.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Sky Sports
That’s not to say that in attack it’s an instantaneous change, to go from Conte to Sarri, especially for those players who need to adapt to a brand new framework around them and brand new instructions for them. Chief among those at Chelsea is N’Golo Kanté, who’s been tasked with a front-to-back rather than side-to-side coverage role.
But most others not named Jorgino also have plenty of learning, improving, and evolving to do. Sarri famously turned Dries Mertens from an average winger to a world class goal-scorer at Napoli. Who will be Chelsea’s Mertens?
“Sarri taught me football. He is a coach I really like, well-prepared and even scientific in the way he analyses games.”
”The thing I love the most about his style of football is the way he organises the phases when we are off the ball and structures the pressure we put on opponents when they’ve got the ball at their feet.”
“It feels like he has already played the game out in his head and on the field you have an extra man.”
-Dries Mertens; source: Corriere dello Sport
That sort of telepathic understanding that Mertens describes can only happen with plenty of repetition in training. Conte preached something similar with his set movements; the difference with Sarri apparently is that he keeps his training sessions just as up-tempo as he wants Chelsea to play during the games. Here’s how journalist Gabriele Marcotti describes the typical Sarri session.
Many of his training sessions are based on endless repetition, so that players get the co-ordination and timing essential to his game. Sarri tends to do this at a high pace, to ensure his sessions do not run for hours and to stop players getting bored. To an outsider, it can appear chaotic and it can take players a while to adapt to his training regime.
That emphasis on chemistry and repetition allows his players to pass the ball confidently into space, knowing a team-mate will be there or on his way.
-Source: The Times
And it’s not just brute force repetition (which sounds redundant), but rather smart, targeted repetition of key concepts to address key weaknesses. Sarri’s use of drones in training at Napoli has gained some notoriety, but the use of overhead/tactical cameras is hardly unique. The trick, as ever, is to properly apply the learnings from this information (and to help visualize certain concepts).
Sarri’s operative word in his introductory press conference was “fun”, a marked and notable change from Conte’s “work”. But the “fun” doesn’t happen without the “work” either. In the end, Sarri-ball also boils down to hard work. Repetitive, mind-numbing, indoctrinating hard work. Hard work on the training ground and hard work during the games (we certainly saw what happens when hard work is replaced by watching the ball against Arsenal). Sarri sells the fun, but there is a price to pay, just like always.
“I like it when the team is training very well, when they are trying to improve, and I like it also when they have fun. We can play, we can work very hard and at the same time we can have fun. Ninety per cent of the work is with the ball.”
For now, the hard work is paying off with points and even a bit of fun. The honeymoon phase of Sarri’s tenure continued unabated. He knows things won’t always be this nice, but we can certainly enjoy it while it lasts
”So far, so good I think. But I know in the future I will have to face some difficulties.”
-Maurizio Sarri; Source: Sky Sports