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Chelsea perfect from afar, but far from perfect

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Taking stock of Sarri’s Chelsea after the first five rounds of the 2018-19 Premier League

Huddersfield Town v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Top of the table.

Five games, five wins. Joint most goals scored. Third least goals conceded.

No one should have expected Chelsea to start this well, both in terms of results, and picking up Maurizio Sarri’s style. The coach himself warned it would take two-three months for “Sarri-ball” to arrive ... and he’s right. Chelsea are far from his finished article. But wow, what a start.

The Blues have gone from reactionary football to entirely positive in the space of five games, starting every match with the intent to control; the fans are having fun, and so are the players. One quote in particular really stuck out just before the international break:

”At the moment we are winning games, I think we are playing good football, so I enjoy. I want to keep this momentum. The bad thing is now we go to the national team, we want to just keep playing with Chelsea and win games!

-Eden Hazard

It’s surely the most encouraging quote in over a year from Chelsea’s best player, and the biggest indication he could yet stay long term. Matt Law of the Telegraph recently reported that Chelsea feared Hazard would push his way out because of Antonio Conte’s football; Sarri’s football sounds like the key to keeping him.

Statistics for statistics’ sake can be surface level analysis, but here they help to illustrate a point. Chelsea currently have the highest average possession in the Premier League at 65.8%, a over ten percentage points higher than any team not named Manchester City. In fact, Sarri’s Chelsea have so far made the most passes in Europe’s top five leagues with 3761, an average of 752.2 per game. Real Madrid (741.3) and Barcelona (722.8) are the only other teams averaging over 700. For Chelsea to pick up such a totally contrasting style to the last two managers is not only hugely impressive from the players, but also a testament to Sarri’s work on the training ground. Already at a disadvantage with a delayed start after joining the club late in the summer, it’s fantastic how quickly he’s gotten the players on board.

Chelsea FC v Cardiff City - Premier League Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

It’s not just Hazard though. Álvaro Morata, Antonio Rüdiger, David Luiz and Willian all have criticised Conte’s tactics recently and spoken of their preference playing Sarri’s style. While stopping short of critiquing his old manager, N’Golo Kante has also expressed his happiness in his new, advanced role. The squad are in high spirits, and positivity only breeds more positivity.

‪That all said, there’s a long way for this team to improve; the 15 points from five games is impressive, but it could easily be less. The 2-1 Newcastle win came from a penalty and an own goal. The Arsenal victory could have easily been three points for either side, with Emery’s men having the opportunities to be three goals ahead by half time. It’s a game of small margins, and Chelsea could be sixth right now. Now that’s all entirely expected; no one should have anticipated Sarri to turn Chelsea into the perfect team within five games, but it’s important to keep that perspective in mind. ‬Chelsea are perfect in the league table, but not in performances.

As Sarri himself maintains, Liverpool and Manchester City, sitting second and third, respectively, are still the favourites for the title. When Chelsea play Liverpool on September 29, it will be by far the toughest test this new back four has faced, and could easily become a heavy defeat against that electric front three. Again, that shouldn’t be shocking at this stage of Sarri’s project. But crashing from maximum points to a loss against a rival like Liverpool will feel devastating, and you know the headlines will fly. ‬

‪The benefit of this ever-so-slightly fortuitous 15/15 points is the cushion it gives the project. Once Chelsea slip up (it may not be against Liverpool, but it’ll happen), it’s better to be in the position of slipping from first than slipping from sixth. The project has already established a base, acquired legitimacy, and has saved up a few lifelines from the fans and the Board as well.

Hazard is on fire right now, in Player of the Year form, but other players need to step up. There will be matches where he will be marked (or, more accurately, kicked) out of the game, and goals and attacks will need to come from elsewhere. Olivier Giroud played a fantastic supporting role against Cardiff, creating two of Eden’s three goals, so it seems churlish to critique him, but either he or Morata, or both, will need to deliver a substantial amount of goals this season for Chelsea to reach any significant targets. The same can be said for the midfield; they’ve controlled every game so far but will need to chip in with goals as well. Mateo Kovačić, a really top talent, has looked impressive in each game, but he, Jorginho, and Kanté have a grand total of 8 goals from open play since 2015 between themselves (over 360 appearances combined). One of them will need to discover a scoring touch.

The most obvious weak spot in Chelsea’s XI thus far is David Luiz. He’s made at least one big mistake in almost every game: allowing Joselu in for Newcastle’s equaliser was the most obvious, but the chances he allowed Callum Wilson against Bournemouth really should have put the team in a much tougher position. He may improve as the season goes on under Sarri’s coaching, but he’s 31 now, and the usefulness of marginally improving him is questionable. Andreas Christensen may have made mistakes, too, last season (fewer, probably), but he’s almost a decade younger and has world class potential. To take David Luiz’s minutes would be an improvement right now and a long-term benefit to the club.

Slightly forgotten in the excitement of this thrilling start too is Callum Husdon-Odoi. Easily the best player in Chelsea’s pre-season, he looked ready to take the Premier League by storm. As fixtures pile up over the coming months it’s important that ‘CHO’, Ethan Ampadu and Ruben Loftus-Cheek get the minutes they deserve. Any further delays will have to be seen as a black mark against Sarri’s tenure. These are players who can benefit the first-team now, and well into the future.

Manchester City v Chelsea - FA Community Shield Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Chelsea are passing their way through the Premier League, and looking from afar it may all seem perfect, but it’s important to retain a perspective, to not expect Chelsea to canter to the title. There will be a slump, there always is. But this looks like the start of a very exciting project so far, one that’s taken off much, much quicker than expected.

Roman Abramovich has always wanted more than winning. It’s said he considers counter-attacking, reactionary football as something not befitting a club of Chelsea’s statute. He wants his Chelsea to dominate. You can only imagine he’s loving this. Let’s hope it continues.