Maurizio Sarri has been tasked with bringing entertaining football to Stamford Bridge, but that objective will be comfortably more achievable once the Italian manufactures the right defensive structure first – a platform for that thrilling brand of Sarri ball to be continuously launched from.
While that may not seem an obvious priority for a manager who got the Chelsea job by implementing a philosophy at Napoli akin to Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s at Liverpool and Manchester City respectively, it’s clearly already on his mind. After Sunday’s Community Shield defeat on Sunday, Sarri immediately questioned the abject defensive performance of his team as a collective.
“I want to talk about the defensive phase of the team, not just the defenders. We have to improve. We have to improve in the other half so that for the defenders it becomes a little bit easier.”
Maurizio Sarri, BT Sport
However, there are a few challenging hurdles in his path, some which require simply a sustained period of adaption to overcome and others that are more systematic, which may eventually oblige addressing via the transfer market.
The recurring theme, though, is Antonio Conte’s tactical legacy; despite reigning in west London for just two years, the ideals and consequences of his 3-4-3 setup are already proving far deeper-rooted than many suspected.
The first of those hurdles is how high Chelsea’s defensive line now sets up in comparison to under Sarri’s predecessor. Now much further up the pitch – see where Chelsea’s centre-backs positioned themselves on Sunday versus either of the Blues’ Premier League clashes with City last season – there are far less bodies between the opposition and the goal whenever Chelsea lose the ball, leaving them open to counter-attacks.
Chelsea as a team quite simply haven’t got used to that yet; they need to place greater emphasis on protecting possession, which is exactly what their only major acquisition of the summer, Jorginho, has been signed for, and they need to be far more aware of the dangers that style of play leaves them susceptible to. One turnover in the middle third could be all the opposition needs to create a scoring chance on the break.
But the underlying concern is whether the defenders at Sarri’s disposal will actually get used to that way of playing, and whether they can do so while retreating from the biggest mark Conte left on English football – the back three. In theory, Chelsea’s defence is incredibly versatile as most of the personnel involved have played in different positions and different systems before. But scratch a little deeper, and the former Stamford Bridge manager actually accumulated a wide cohort of back three specialists in an incredibly short space of time.
Perhaps the most significant of those is David Luiz, who epitomises the counter-intuitiveness of the problem Sarri now faces. On paper, the Brazilian is the perfect centre-back to help employ a high line; he’s quick, he’s physical and he adores opportunities to get on the ball in midfield.
But Luiz has never looked anywhere near as comfortable throughout the rest of his his two spells at Chelsea as when he was the anchor of a three-man defence. Luiz even explained the improvement himself in May last year – his job is made far simpler because he’s covering rather than being asked to step forward or hold the line.
“In my position I need to be the cover for everybody, the cover for the midfielders and the defence and the wingers. It’s a tactical place, and I love to work with Conte, he loves to work on the details. He’s helped me a lot and he’s great to work with.”
David Luiz on playing in a back three
Placed in a back four on Sunday, the more nightmarish Luiz returned; the one who allows himself to be caught out positionally, the one who too readily leaves the rest of the defence exposed, the one who suddenly resembles closer a headless chicken than a former world-record defender.
In a back four, he just isn’t the same imperious presence. Sarri appears to have brought Luiz back in from the cold to help lead the transition between Conte’s and his way of playing, but the 31-year-old is already proving himself to be a potentially key vulnerability.
And it worryingly rings true for most of the centre-backs who could partner Luiz this season. Antonio Rudiger was brought to Stamford Bridge after impressing in a back three at Roma, albeit one that switched to a back four intermittently, and Andreas Christensen spent almost as much of his time at Borussia Monchengladbach working in a three-man or five-man as a four-man defence.
There’s grounds for debate over which setup they’re actually more comfortable in, but Rudiger certainly didn’t inspire confidence alongside Luiz on Sunday and physically at least, Christensen looks more a tidy sweeper than a commanding centre-half.
On the flanks, the problem only becomes more noticeable. Marcos Alonso, Emerson Palmieri, Davide Zappacosta and Victor Moses are all wing-backs first and full-backs second – or in the latter’s case, not at all – and in many ways modifying them to fit Sarri’s back four only restricts their skills sets.
Alonso, particularly, can make a claim for being arguably the best left wing-back in the world right now; playing a few yards deeper, he just isn’t as effective and looks susceptible to being exposed by tricky, speedy wingers without a centre-back tucking behind him to cover.
Cesar Azpilicueta too, one of the best pound-for-pound defenders in the business, should embrace the chance to return to his most natural role of right-back, but he’s not played there consistently since his first season at Stamford Bridge and in the meantime, the Spaniard’s developed into an ideal fit for the wide centre-back berths in a three.
Now aged 28, he’s not the explosive, offensive full-back who arrived in west London in 2012 – but that’s the role Sarri will want him to play this season.
The prevailing question, then, is who can Sarri really rely on to help him change the shape of this Chelsea team, and the answer is as uninspiring as it is unassuming – Gary Cahill. Entering the final year of his contract at the age of 32, Cahill seems more likely to leave Stamford Bridge before the transfer deadline than become a fulcrum of Sarri’s new-look side – he’s not started once for Chelsea in pre-season – but if there’s one defender already at the club who has consistently proved throughout his career that he’s naturally at home in a back four, its undoubtedly the Blues’ veteran skipper.
Can Cahill be trusted in a high line and expected to build out of the back? Probably not, but if implementing the right shape and structure takes precedent over implementing Sarri’s style of play, at least in the short term, Cahill could be an important player in that transition. Based on Sunday’s performance against Manchester City, a 2-0 defeat in which the scoreline flattered them, Chelsea would benefit from another leader at the back too. Indeed, Sarri’s arguably brought the wrong veteran back in from the cold – Luiz has only exacerbated problems that Cahill could help quickly solve.
The alternative is for Sarri to accept that implementing a back four will be a much longer process and during the interim some pragmatic compromise is needed. Perhaps Chelsea start the season with a back three and use the coming transfer windows to transition towards a four-man defence, but this isn’t a system Sarri’s seemingly comfortable with; although Italian football is very much the home of the back three, from his 200 games in charge of Napoli and Empoli the Chelsea boss used a three-man defence only thrice.
So, Chelsea fans, how would you handle the transition to a back four? Let us know by voting below…