“Sarri’s not a Chelsea man!”, bellowed Rory from Chelsea Fan TV. In all honesty, he could be forgiven for thinking so. Maurizio Sarri was unorthodox in many ways, but one particular move backhanded the ‘Chelsea way’ right across the face. He attempted, dare we say it, to instil a positive brand of football- an attribute Abramovich has yearned for throughout his time at Chelsea, but something he has rarely ever recieved. Sarri was billed as the signpost of a new era at Stamford Bridge, following in the footsteps of the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool with long-term planning and a positive footballing identity. Initially, anyway, Chelsea fans pledged to support the revolution. But one thing is saying and one thing is doing. As soon as a couple of results went wayward, and form went downhill, Chelsea, well, became Chelsea again. The torches were out, calling for Sarri’s head, and the managerial merry-go-round turned full circle once more. Indeed, his supposedly revolutionary ‘Sarriball’ was largely unconvincing. Sarriball revolves around moving the ball forward urgently, vertical one-twos and rapid attacking transitions. Yet, especially early on in the season, his side were notorious for “sideways”, “unambitious” football.
In fact, come the latter parts of the season, displeased Chelsea fans felt it necessary to voice their opinions on the system rather, well, explicitly. “F*** Sarriball, f*** Sarriball” topped the charts at Stamford Bridge. Jorginho- Sarri’s golden boy and systematic linchpin- fell prey to particularly harsh criticism. His defensive shortcomings and alleged lack of forward passing was lambasted by Chelsea fans and pundits, especially considering he was taking the position of fan-favourite N’Golo Kante. However, and this is what irate Chelsea fans couldn’t seem to grasp, the problem with Sarriball- and for that matter Jorginho- did not lie within Sarri himself. It was a lack of time to work on the training ground, and at the same time, a lack of a squad able to perform the system.
First, and most importantly, Sarriball requires defenders comfortable on the ball. This is so that if Jorginho- the man responsible for creating from deep and linking build up play in their own half- is marked out of the game, one of the centre-halfs can bring the ball forward out of defence and pick a forward pass. Kalidou Koulibaly performed this to a tee at Napoli. Yes, David Luiz is renowned for his technical quality, but he has a tendency to attempt long, extravagant balls rather than the simple forward pass. Antonio Rudiger is more sensible, but needed more time on the training ground to learn when to step out of defence and what passes to pick.
The false 9 is another key component of Sarriball. The job of the false 9 is to drop in between the lines to offer options to passing combinations, while also lurking on the defenders’ shoulders to offer options in behind on quick breaks. Therefore, your archetypal false 9 is quick, nimble and technically gifted- with a fantastic awareness of space. None of these characteristics, however, would you associate with Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain. It would be unfair to describe the pair as old-fashioned no.9s, but nor are they your typical modern day striker. Both thrive on crosses into the box and scraps in the penalty area rather than offering selfless link-up play. This is partly why Chelsea’s possession went sideways not forward- there was no false 9 to play off.
Behind the soap opera, we easily forget Sarri had a very successful season. Chelsea finished 3rd thus guaranteeing Champions League football, won a European trophy and were only beaten on penalties by eventual league-winners Manchester City in the Carbao Cup final. However – and this narrative is becoming freakishly identical to the one up the M25 at the City Ground- Sarri burnt bridges with the fanbase. They despised his stubborn adherence to the system and supposed ‘lack of adaptation’ when results turned pear-shaped. Don’t listen to them Maurizio. Once your on those sunbeds in Turin, you’ll forget Chelsea ever happened.
What is a Chelsea man though ?