Mourinho put the greatest lock-down full back behind him. Conte switched the formation entirely. Now, Sarri has simply moved him from the position and plunked him in the middle, where he can truly enjoy his free role without any defensive responsibilities.
Three different methods all geared towards one thing: allowing Eden Hazard the maximum amount of freedom without completely unbalancing, or worse, opening up the team at the other end.
This doesn’t exactly fit Sarri’s “fun” football narrative — neither does his usual insistence on players like Callum Hudson-Odoi or Ruben Loftus-Cheek improving in the defensive phase (which they are doing, to their credit) — but the head coach was quite clear in his post-match comments following Chelsea’s 2-1 win aginst Newcastle over the weekend.
“I wanted to see the solution with three small players, I think in this moment it is a very good solution because we are not less dangerous in the offensive phase and then in the defensive phase we are more balanced. In the last six matches, we conceded only three goals and one was from a penalty. I think that at the moment, in the defensive phase, we are doing very well. One of the reasons I think, in my opinion, is that Eden is playing in that position.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Goal
It’s about the team’s needs ahead of a player’s individual needs — Joe Cole reflected on this paradigm quite well in a recent BT Sport studio appearance, when speaking about his own situation under José Mourinho back 10-15 years ago.
Take a few minutes to kick back and reminisce with Joe Cole. Fascinating honesty, insight and openness on #PLTonight. Just wish we’d had another 30 minutes...⚽️⚽️— Jake Humphrey (@mrjakehumphrey) January 12, 2019
Of course, just as it was with Joey, it’s a learning process. The defensive phase may be improved, but the attacking phase continues to lack any real cut or thrust. Sarri knows one way that can be improved, but at the end of the day it’s down to the players to execute to the gameplan.
“We need to learn to attack spaces, or attack the box with the other players. It was better today with the other wingers in attacking spaces more than the box. We scored after 10 minutes by attacking spaces behind the lines with Pedro.
“I remember very well at the beginning of the second half, we had the same situation with Willian. So it is better now, we need to improve in attacking the box, when the ball is out of the box. When the ball is outside, it is impossible for Eden to stay in the box.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Goal
Smarter people than me often say that football is a game of exploiting and controlling spaces. Chelsea have done a decent job in the latter regard, fixing many of the problems that left the side so vulnerable earlier in the season (even if the opposition often let us get away with it). But now we have to get better at exploiting spaces as well when in possession of the ball, lest we continue to pass it around inertly.