Maurizio Sarri’s love of hogging the ball without guile has to change – fast
Chelsea need injection of pace, even aggression, anything to make team less predictable
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri looks on during his side’s 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters
The clamour around Chelsea is for change. If not, within the club at least, in terms of the management. There are no first-team delegations primed with complaints and queuing up outside Marina Granovskaia’s office just yet. While it is never wise to pre-suppose Roman Abramovich’s mood, the hierarchy are less inclined these days to fire a head coach who has barely had time to reinstate ketchup on the menu at the Cobham canteen.
Yet the sense is inescapable that Maurizio Sarri cannot simply plough on like this. There has to be an acknowledgement that something has to be done differently, primarily in terms of the side’s tactical approach. Chelsea and Abramovich knew they were hiring a coach whose faith in his own philosophy was unswerving, born of a successful rise through Italian amateur football into Serie A with Empoli and Napoli, but a manager of any clout has to be able to adapt to a certain extent. There is an art to improvisation. It can’t simply be a case of blindly repeating the same old approach, and then, when the same old issues duly flare up, issuing the same old exclamations of astonishment in public.
The thrashing at Bournemouth on Wednesday was, on the one hand, a shock to the system given Chelsea have not endured a dismissal so emphatic in the top-flight since 1996. But, on the other, it was all so eminently predictable. Eddie Howe heaped praise post-match on the efforts of David Brooks and Josh King in shutting down Jorginho, through whom Sarri’s team set their rhythm, but any opponent worth their salt has been doing that against Chelsea since Tottenham Hotspur stifled the Italy midfielder in late autumn.
Sarri’s side still hog the ball. They had 68 per cent of the possession on the south coast but there is little guile to any of it. It can be tedious possession for possession’s sake. They crave an alternative option, one that might shrug them out of the metronomic plod of the current approach. But Sarri, aside from switching between target man and false number nine, will only countenance tweaking his formation, akin to shaking things up, once he feels his players are completely au fait with Plan A.
“We haven’t even learned the most basic moves yet,” he offered to an Italian broadcaster on Wednesday night when the question of Sarri-ball cropped up. “We need to work on the basics. Only then will we try to change a few things. We had assumed that we had learned a certain style of football, but the truth is we never did learn it and are paying the consequences.”
That echoed his comments ahead of the defeat at Arsenal. “We are not ready to change at the moment,” he had said. “I can change when we are at 100 per cent in what I want to see.”
The coach is desperate to have time on the training pitches, where he can monotonously drum home his principles in the hope they become second nature. He had endured relatively slow starts with Empoli and Napoli, but the players eventually cottoned on. Yet the relentless nature of the schedule in England is denying him that same opportunity now. He must already be pining for a proper pre-season though, first, he has to reach the summer with his position intact.
The board knew what they were appointing and it is not in the current regime’s nature to seek to force the head coach to play a different way. But they will surely expect to see signs of an ability to adapt from the stubborn outlook, even if that threatens to push the head coach away from his underlying principles en route. They will seek evidence that the team’s approach does not always have to revolve entirely around Jorginho, Sarri’s crutch.
Chelsea need to inject pace into the set-up, or natural width, or even raw aggression (Diego Costa’s snarl has never been more missed). Something, anything, to give opponents an unanticipated problem because, at present, everyone knows what they are going to confront when they play Chelsea. It is all too predictable. How Sarri must wish Gonzalo Higuaín was fully fit and firing. In truth, pinning hopes on a 31-year-old loanee enduring the toughest season of his career feels risky.
Even the reaction to failure is starting to feel tired. Sarri has questioned his players’ motivation and even reverted to Italian to add more punch to his message after the loss at the Emirates stadium. At Bournemouth he cast his coaching staff from the dressing-room post-match and spent an hour with his players attempting to pinpoint why this team’s performance can unravel so rapidly. Cesar Azpilicueta claimed they had “spoken as men” through an honest postmortem, though the suggestion is most of the talking came from Sarri. There were further talks as a group before training back at Cobham on Thursday.
Sarri had travelled home from Bournemouth in a car driven by a member of his coaching staff so he could prepare the squad’s first session ahead of the meeting with Huddersfield Town on Saturday. Defeat in that fixture is inconceivable, and victory over the division’s whipping boys will hardly prove Chelsea have turned a corner. But this boom and bust, from week to week, cannot continue. Something has to change.