Chelsea were a team reinvigorated at the start of the season, when Maurizio Sarri brought his ideal style of play to Stamford Bridge. But what worked at Napoli was soon found out in the Premier League, and the Italian had no clear ‘Plan B’.
Game after game the 59-year-old persevered with two banks of three ahead of a four-man back line, even forcing the defensively dominant N’Golo Kante to become a box-to-box creative type and taking the French enforcer away from what made him great.
It finally seemed against Manchester City that the Italian was changing his ways, at least in some small part, when he started without a conventional striker in favour of Eden Hazard, but the Blues’ performance showed nothing really changed.
Go back just a few weeks and Chelsea were ripped apart by Tottenham Hotspur, as Mauricio Pochettino found a way to keep the Blues’ key men from performing: Jorginho was countered at every chance and a resilient backline meant Hazard, Willian and co. failed to spark life into their team.
It was an impressive performance by Spurs, but Sarri-ball is not about forcing the opposition to submit through a lack of chances, rather to play them off the pitch.
If that is what Chelsea’s higher-ups desire, then playing with a target man like Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata will never pair well to the football their coach is chasing. Thus making Hazard start as a false nine on Saturday was more about the Belgian fitting his manager’s greater vision than coming up with an alternative strategy.
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When Sarri rose to global prominence with Napoli, he had the masterful Dries Mertens on hand – a Belgian who, too, started life behind the front line and made the central switch under the Italian’s guidance.
He would go on to become a lethal forward in Serie A, netting 67 goals and assisting a further 36 in 135 games under Sarri. Compare that to his previous manager in Naples, Rafa Benitez, and Mertens’ record is barely that of the same player – 23 goals and 24 assists in 98 games.
Sarri may see the win over City as evidence that a switch in position was the right move for Hazard, and Giroud and Morata will be assigned to the bench, but hopefully the 59-year-old is wiser than to fall for the false positives of a mediocre performance.
Had City been clinical with their first-half chances, the Pensioners would have been done and dusted by the break like they were against Spurs. Kante’s strike right before the half-time whistle was Chelsea’s only shot in the opening 45 minutes.
Say Leroy Sane found the net rather than Cesar Azpilicueta after Raheem Sterling twirled around Marcos Alonso as if the Spanish left-back was a training dummy, would Sarri have then resorted to Giroud at striker like he did at Wembley?
At least one thing would change if Hazard continues to play at striker – Sarri would have an actual ‘Plan B’, rather just making like-for-like changes in the hope that it can produce something different, by bringing on the target man to lump balls towards.
Sarri would have to include more than just a substitute in his tactics, though. He would need to work on a different game plan that he can change to during the match, trusting his players with another approach and one that is not Sarri-ball, but more long ball.
The Italian cannot simply continue swapping one player for another and deem it a change of tactics or the big six clubs will see Chelsea as the new whipping boys – predictable, inflexible and beatable.