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Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea: Tactical Approach & Key Players

Miles Olusina writes about Maurizio Sarri and the approach he is likely to take at Chelsea.

Despite a successful 2016/17 campaign which saw Chelsea win the Premier League as runaway leaders, a disappointing performance the following season saw Antonio Conte lose his job; with many fans disgruntled at the style of play exhibited by his side. In response to this, the highly sought after Italian Maurizio Sarri was brought in from Napoli for the 2018/19 season. With his side playing some of the most attractive football in Europe over the last two seasons and challenging Juventus for the Serie A title, he seemed the most logical option considering the desire for Chelsea fans to see attractive football at Stamford Bridge.

Who is Maurizio Sarri?

One of a growing list of managers who have managed teams at the highest level, despite not playing professionally, Sarri played as a central defender in the amateur leagues in Italy while working as a banker. Injuries limited his playing career and he began coaching in 1990 while continuing his job as a banker. After finding success with multiple amateur clubs in Italy he fully devoted himself to coaching in 1999 at the age of 40, taking up a managerial role at Tegoleto.

After an array of stints at clubs in the lower professional leagues of Italian football, he would finally be given an opportunity to show his ability at the top level when he was given the manager’s job at Empoli in 2012. After guiding them to promotion to Italy’s top flight in the 2013-14 season, he then took them a step further the following season, comfortably keeping them in the division with a 15th place finish.

This was enough to convince Napoli to hire him as a replacement for Rafa Benitez, something many saw as a risk as he was still very much unproven at the highest level. It proved to be an inspired decision by the Napoli hierarchy, as their side began playing some of the most attractive football in Europe. It was the first time since the days of Diego Maradona that the Neapolitan side had challenged for the title, largely due to the managerial brilliance of Sarri.

Tactical Approach

Chelsea fans can expect to see a much more fluid and possession based style under Sarri, which is in stark contrast to the rigid, more defensive minded football they exhibited under Antonio Conte. Chelsea often came unstuck in games in which they had to break down stubborn opposition, as their attacking play was more predicated on a direct, counter attacking style with Eden Hazard at the forefront.

Being a disciple of Juego de Poisicion (in English, Positional Play), Sarri favours an attack based more on the collective, looking to create overloads and combinations around the opposition pressure as opposed to relying on deliveries from wide areas and individual moments of brilliance from attackers.

Napoli typically lined up in a 4-3-3 under Sarri, a system which for many is the default for Positional Play due to the natural triangles formed within the system. There was a great emphasis on creating overloads in his Napoli side with players often deviating from their base positions to create numerical superiority in a different zone. One example of this was Jorginho, who is due to be an influential player for Chelsea this season. He could often be seen dropping between the centre backs Koulibaly and Albiol when the opposition pressed with two strikers, thus creating a 3v2 overload.

Similarly to Guardiola’s sides over the years, he has also placed a great emphasis on the keeper during the build up phase, as the use of the keeper gives his side the advantage of a free man when playing out of defence. For example, in this scenario here, with Reina involved in the build up phase and Jorginho dropping between the centre backs, Napoli now have an overload of 4v3.

Chelsea’s defensive behaviour is also likely to undergo major changes under the tutelage of Sarri, with a much more proactive and aggressive approach favoured by the chain-smoking Italian. Under Conte, the Blues gained many plaudits for their organisation in and out of possession, however they were also rightly criticised for the rigidity of their style.

Sarri favours a high pressing style out of possession with a high defensive line in order to condense the active playing area. His teams tend to be very compact in and out of possession, resulting in minimal space between the lines and multiple lines of pressure. As a result they win possession high up the pitch, exploiting the opposition’s disorganised structure.

Here, we see Napoli pressing in a 4-4-2 shape. He typically favours a man oriented approach with potential receivers often blocked by cover shadows or marking passing lanes. When the ball is played back, they often push higher, forcing the opposition to build closer to their own goal and making them more vulnerable should they concede possession.

Above is Chelsea’s potential line up for the upcoming season; already we have seen Sarri implement the 4-3-3 in pre-season and in the first two competitive games of the season, the Community Shield defeat to Manchester City and the 3-0 win over Huddersfield on the opening day. The Blues’ 3 new signings should expect to play a key role in this new look Chelsea side, particularly Italian Jorginho who played under Sarri at Napoli, will be very influential in helping aid the transition in terms of playing style.

One big positive from looking at their side is their midfield three; they seem to have found the perfect balance with the regista-style role played by Jorginho, the defensive solidity and energy provided by N’Golo Kante and the playmaking abilities and press resistance of Mateo Kovacic, who should slot seamlessly into the role of the attacking 8 in Chelsea’s midfield three.

Goals could potentially be an issue with Morata struggling for goals for much of last season and looking rather unconvincing in the first two games of this season. With Michy Batshuayi going out on loan and few goals expected to come from midfield, Chelsea fans will be hoping that Eden Hazard can step up and become the world class goal-scorer he has threatened to be for so many years.

Key Players

Eden Hazard: Having knocked on the door for the title of the ‘3rd Best Player in the World’ for a number of years now, Hazard has finally proven that he is capable of performing on the grandest stage, after a phenomenal showing at the 2018 World Cup in Russia where he led Belgium to a 3rd place finish. However, at club level many still feel there is more to come from him in the goals department. He will no doubt play a major role in Chelsea’s season and under Sarri we could finally see him transform into a 30+ goals a season forward, similar to how Dries Mertens evolved under the Italian at Napoli.

Jorginho: Chelsea’s £57m signing from Napoli will be a great addition to this Chelsea side and the Premier League as a whole. The acquisition of Jorginho is made even more satisfying by the fact that they pipped Manchester City to his signature. With Chelsea severely lacking a solid defensive midfielder to partner N’Golo Kante since the departure of Nemanja Matic, Jorginho will be a welcome addition despite playing a different role to the departed Serbian.

Mateo Kovacic: Another player Chelsea were able to steal ahead of their title rivals, the former Real Madrid man seems primed to take the Premier League by storm after a few years impressing at the Santiago Bernabeu, despite playing a bit part role. With his brilliant close control, intelligent movement and ability to link play, Sarri may have just found the perfect player to occupy the no.8 role in his possession based system.


For the first time in a long time, expectations are not very high for Chelsea coming into this season with many believing this campaign to be a transitional one for the Blues. Add to that the strength of the Manchester clubs and the resurgence of Liverpool, the title may be a bridge too far for this Chelsea side. However, we can definitely expect to see the West London outfit in the top 4 and possibly mounting a decent title challenge.

Miles Olusina

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