This season will mark the start of a new era for Chelsea, and it could be one of the most exciting and enjoyable campaigns at Stamford Bridge for years. In Maurizio Sarri, Roman Abramovich finally has a manager capable of producing the fluent, vibrant attacking football he has always yearned for. In Eden Hazard, Sarri has the perfect player to lead his Blues team’s attack and in Jorginho, one of the most watchable and effective passing metronomes in the world. Throw in players with the quality of N’Golo Kanté, David Luiz, Álvaro Morata and Willian, and the potential is there for a successful and entertaining season.
Be that as it may, it’s impossible to truly believe in this project at the moment. There are the doubts over ins and outs in the remaining days of the transfer window, obviously, and none of that uncertainty is helpful or healthy. But, even with those misgivings set aside for a minute, one has to ask: isn’t this ‘Sarri-ball’ stuff all a bit too good to be true? Aren’t the problems with this new idea glaring? Are Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea somehow morphing very rapidly into Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal?
It seems the transformation is already well underway. A young squad rich in potential but rough around the edges? Check. A manager who espouses the importance of aesthetics over that of results? Check. A couple of genuine world-class talents who are sick of being surrounded by mediocrity and want away? Check. A slew of inconsistent technicians with heavenly first-touches but an obvious lack of fighting spirit? Check. An expensive centre-forward who’d make a perfect son-in-law, but clearly lacks the ruthlessness needed to be a truly great striker? Check. A Cesc Fàbregas? Check. An actual, authentic Olivier Giroud? Check.
The change of footballing style may not be a bad thing: every team with aspirations of top-level success has to attain massive revenue through global popularity, and thus has to play in something approximating the post-Cruyffian tiki-taka style and do so better than Barcelona, otherwise Barcelona will simply win everything and television viewers all over the world will keep watching them. It’s no longer enough to win — teams have to win playing the most attractive football possible.
Chelsea appointing Sarri and abandoning Antonio Conte’s more prosaic style of play brings them into line with the rest of the world’s elite football clubs and makes them a more attractive proposition for marketers. This is obviously good for the club. It’s also worth remembering that Conte’s combative style upset almost everyone at the club, while Sarri’s more diplomatic outlook will be a breath of fresh air.
That said, the move to a more proactive, possession-heavy style of play is certainly a marked shift and the ramifications of this will be felt. For the last decade or so, match-going Blues have prided themselves on having a team which ignores the fancier parts of the game and simply wins. The first Mourinho era was characterised by merciless, mirthless, monotonous winning, and the nucleus of that iconic team preserved an elite dressing-room mentality which survived for the best part of a decade. It also meant that no amount of managerial upheaval could stop Chelsea’s continued success, much of it far from easy on the eye. Meanwhile, lauded but trophy-less eras of “stability” and “holistic development” at rival clubs were laughed at, supposed “moral victories” mocked next to the Blues’ very real successes.
Now, a year on from being the Premier League champions, Chelsea find themselves in the slipstream of their rivals. Pep Guardiola has changed the landscape of English football with Manchester City and they look set to dominate for as long as the Catalan stays at the Etihad. The acceleration of Jürgen Klopp’s project at Liverpool should see them mount a serious title challenge this season. Tottenham’s collective growth under Mauricio Pochettino has maintained an upward curve and many of their key players are entering their peak years. And that’s not even mentioning Manchester United, enduring a difficult time but with far more quality throughout their squad than Chelsea, and Arsenal, who suddenly have everything in place to allow them to end the nightmare of the late-Wenger era.
Chelsea can no longer offer the highest wages to the best players in the world. As Conte so relentlessly complained, they’re not even the market for the kinds of players who get the pulse racing anymore. If and when Courtois and Hazard go, their replacements will almost certainly not be players of equivalent quality and repute. There are, of course, valid and well-known explanations for this new economic reality which go way beyond football, but none of them change the fact that the ground beneath the Blues’ feet has shifted.
It could be that these doubts are misplaced. It could be that Maurizio Sarri finds a way to get N’Golo Kanté, Jorginho and Cesc Fàbregas into the same midfield without Kanté having to do all the running and the defensive work. It may be that Álvaro Morata gets a bump on the head and wakes up with Diego Costa’s personality. Maybe Willian’s consistent brilliance will translate into end product for more than three months per season. Perhaps even Ross Barkley will benefit from Sarri’s intensive coaching and become the complete midfield player.
More likely, however, is that Chelsea will spend this season — and many more seasons down the line — challenging for fourth place rather than first. The symbols of Chelsea won’t be relentless warrior winners like Didier Drogba, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Branislav Ivanović, but purist-friendly, global-audience-attracting, tippy-tappy technicians like Jorginho and social media banter heavyweights like Michy Batshuayi.
Instead of enjoying and taking pride in yet another three points stolen from under the noses of indignant, unhinged Arsenal fans, Blues will probably find themselves extolling the aesthetic virtues and the “fun” of Sarri-ball, insisting that youth teamers must have a clear pathway from academy to first team, and enjoying emphatic home wins over the Premier League’s also-rans while meekly losing to the big boys on the road.
The post-Mansour, post-Emenalo, post-Skripal-case era could be the most testing Chelsea fans have endured since the 1990s. It could bring them closer to empathising with Gooners than they ever thought imaginable. Or it could be amazing. In any case, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.