After a tumultuous few months of choppy form, a goalkeeper refusing to be substituted and a defeat, albeit a spirited one, in the League Cup final, Sarri finally got an oxygen mask with Chelsea’s victory over Spurs on Wednesday.
Their 2-0 win was functional, solid and just what the doctor ordered for, arguably, the most under-pressure manager in the Premier League right now and makes it three clean sheets in a row in all competitions, notwithstanding a penalty shootout.
At the start of the season, ‘Sarri-ball’ was talked about as a revolutionary, mythological way of coaching that would change Chelsea to the core and have them back atop the Premier League table, challenging in the Champions League and rolling in silverware.
In recent months, it’s been used as a term of derision toward Sarri’s unwillingness to change his ways, remaining stubborn in using the same system with the same players, culminating in a 6-0 humiliation at the hands of Manchester City early in February.
Recent results and performances, though, suggest Sarri has started making vital tweaks to save Chelsea’s season, and his own job, helping them toward that much-needed victory over third-placed Spurs in midweek.
At Squawka, we’ve taken a look at these three changes.
1. Taking back control
Following January’s 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, Sarri accused his squad of being ‘difficult to motivate’ and lacking ‘determination’.
“We were up against a team that was more determined than us and that is worrying because it is not the first time it has happened,” he said.
“Our team is extremely difficult to motivate and after we lose motivation, we also lose our way of playing football.”
This all came to a head during Sunday’s cup final with Kepa Arrizabalaga’s infamous refusal to be substituted; Sarri was on the verge of going nuclear on the sideline and at one point, nearly stormed down the tunnel to leave his players to it.
Before Wednesday’s visit of Tottenham, the Italian insisted he wanted to ‘send a message’ to the Chelsea squad. He swiftly delivered that by dropping his Spanish stopper in favour of Willy Caballero.
Chelsea kept a clean sheet, although they didn’t concede a shot on target, but more importantly, Sarri’s players looked far more motivated and gave the impression they were really fighting for their manager; aggressive tackling and swift passing were the order of the day.
It’s also worth noting that Marcos Alonso, a player who has drawn an incredible amount of flack from the Stamford Bridge faithful recently, has found himself out of the side and stayed on the bench for Sunday’s cup final. That now looks to be another masterstroke from Sarri, who re-instated Alonso to the starting XI against Spurs and was rewarded with a much-improved display that included four tackles, more than any defender on the pitch, and three aerial battles won, more than any Chelsea player on the night – the exact parts of his game Alonso has been most criticised for.
These two decisions are symbolic of a manager who desperately wants to fight for his job and prove he can, indeed, be a success in central London.
2. Mixing up the subs
Kovacic for Barkley, Barkley for Kovacic; sound familiar?
As of the aforementioned defeat to Arsenal in January, Sarri had swapped Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley, or vice versa, 19 times. 19 times in just 34 games across all competitions.
One of the main criticisms toward the Italian’s approach has been his stagnant predictability, and nothing signifies that more than this tired, overused and largely useless substitution between two players with broadly similar skillsets.
True to form, Sarri made this change three more times in the following 11 games, with another four of those games seeing them lining up alongside each other.
In the last three outings, though, things have looked a little different. The 3-0 win over Malmo last week was extremely experimental, with Sarri fielding Kovacic in Jorginho’s No.6 role, with Barkley and N’Golo Kante flanking him. This was largely due to the former Napoli boss wanting to rest some key players ahead of the League Cup final but, nevertheless, did give the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ethan Ampadu some vital minutes from the bench.
What has stuck and stood out, though, is the fact that Loftus-Cheek has since come on from the bench in Chelsea’s last two games, replacing Barkley for extra time at Wembley on Sunday and coming on for Kovacic against Spurs on Wednesday. Loftus-Cheek is a raw talent but is far more direct and aggressive with the ball than the aforementioned pair. Bringing the 23-year-old on adds a lot more drive and attacking intent, completely stepping away from the possession obsession that has defined Chelsea this season and making them far more unpredictable.
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3. Old dog, new tricks
Take one look at Chelsea’s defensive line in the 6-0 defeat to Man City or the 2-0 FA Cup defeat to Man Utd and you will see it was suicidally high.
A high line is understandable, compressing the space between your lines to make your team harder to play through, forcing the long ball. However, for one reason or another, it just hasn’t worked for the Blues, highlighted by them conceding 15 goals in an eight-game run from January 12th to February 14th.
According to reports, Chelsea’s players insisted they defend deeper, while Sarri himself admitted it was something he had been considering.
“The players asked to defend deeper and I think we have to play like that, I said the same thing on Sunday,” he said after the win over Tottenham. “We are more solid like this and we still express ourselves and play good football, so why not continue this way?”
Against Spurs on Wednesday, as well as Sunday’s cup final, there was a marked difference in the starting positions of Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz. Instead of being camped perilously close to the halfway line during the opposition’s build-up play, the centre-back pairing retreated toward the edge of their own box, cutting out killer balls over the top of their defensive line.
In turn, Jorginho and his midfield partners have dropped back with them to turn Chelsea into a much more solid, narrow block more reminiscent of a 4-2-3-1 than an aggressive 4-3-3 – this tighter unit allowed Jorginho more cover and finally brought the best out of his considerable ball-playing skills. It isn’t Simeone’s 4-4-2 at Atletico Madrid, but it’s far more functional for a team leaking goals and bereft of confidence. As a result, Sarri has seen his side keep three clean sheets in three games during normal time, conceding just three shots on target (all against Man City).
— ForeverBlue⁸⁴ 🏴🇮🇹 (@sazio1984) February 27, 2019
The biggest point to take from all this, though, is the fact that Sarri – who has played a possession-obsessed 4-3-3 since time began – has finally shown that he is willing to rip up the copybook and change system, personnel and ethos to deliver results, hold onto his job and deliver success.
That delivers an exciting prospect of unpredictability for Chelsea fans and who knows where it could take them?