The Lessons and Implications of Sarri’s Chelsea: A Case Study

Chelsea have been one of the more interesting case studies this season. Going into the year, I was more bullish on them than most because of their personnel. A midfield of Jorginho, Kante and Kovacic looked like it could compete with most in the world. Maurizio Sarri’s work at Napoli had me convinced that their forwards would score a lot more goals. I still believed Alvaro Morata could be the starting 9 at one of Europe’s premier clubs.

Alas, at the time of writing, Chelsea are 6th after 30 games. They are 3rd in Understat’s expected points metric by a decent margin, but have dropped off after a strong start to the season. There’s still time for them to reach the Champions League spots, but the fact that their lead – and performances – have been slipping for so long suggests that this isn’t exactly the same side that started the season. The Premier League has adapted to their patterns.

Some people even predicted this collapse just by looking at Chelsea’s small group of circuits and lack of a proper counter-press. Nico Morales wrote about this before the turn of the year:

Sebastien Chapuis of Canal+ was possibly the first person to go in depth about this, back in October. Conte and Sarri are rather similar in how they use circuits to build out of the back, and with Conte failing for some of the same reasons the year before, he makes it feel like the writing was on the wall if you understood Maurizio Sarri going into the season.

Alas, the situation is pretty instructive, because there are clear and perhaps even obvious ways in which Sarri could change this setup to get it firing again. But it’s the potential reasons for which he isn’t doing so that have implications for both the manager and club.

Sidenote: The Morata Situation

Now, before I delve in, it’s safe to say Morata’s complete loss of confidence for a second consecutive season cost Chelsea points earlier in the season. Sarri couldn’t trust his striker, and playing Morata during a finishing rut is hard to justify against deep blocks. He offers little with his back to goal. Sarri was resultantly forced to field Giroud or Hazard up front, much like Conte the year before.

So what happened to Morata? I think he presents an interesting case study in player evaluation. His career trajectory, stripped of enough context, had me (and many others) convinced that he could succeed at Chelsea. The Spaniard’s best season came when he came off the bench at Real Madrid. He scored 20 goals off the bench averaged 0.91 non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 minutes in the league. The latter figure was the 3rd highest in La Liga among players with at least 1000 minutes. Even accounting for the opposition (he didn’t get much time against good teams), it was a pretty impressive campaign.

Morata was also known as a big game player after his time at Juventus. He scored against Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Inter in key games. He made what could have been a tie-killing run against Guardiola’s strongest Bayern. Heck, I would argue Juve truly lost when Allegri took him off for Mandzukic, taking away Juve’s threat on the counter, thereby allowing the Bundesliga side to pile on the pressure.

But the warning signs were there if one paid close attention, and they all pointed to the same thing: Morata isn’t really the ideal modern 9. While his underlying numbers were strong at Juventus, Allegri didn’t even give him 1500 minutes in each Serie A campaign, often bringing him off the bench. Zidane gave him even fewer minutes at Madrid. 2016-17 was an outlier finishing season by his standards; he outperformed expected goals by a 57% margin in the league. If you want an illustration of his skillset: Morata couldn’t displace a struggling Benzema despite easily outscoring him. Some of Madrid’s worst attacking spells came when starting him alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. He lived up to the billing against small teams at Madrid because he was fed crosses by one of the best ball progressing teams ever (and he is a fantastic header of the ball). He thrived against big teams at Juventus because he had space to run into.

The numbers, and narrative, disguised that Morata never consistently succeeded in the situations he’d have to succeed in to make it at a big club. Combine that with his volatile confidence (how many top, top strikers are this streaky or polarizing?) and expecting him to replace Diego Costa at Chelsea was at least a little unrealistic.

Sarri’s Stubbornness: Planned or Premeditated?

Even if you account for Morata’s struggles, the fact is that Chelsea’s problems have been running a lot deeper since their strong start. The attack has been dull, and just as Hazard reliant. Sarri’s Chelsea are actually creating marginally worser quality chances from open play than they did under Conte last season (0.10 xG/chance v. 0.11 the year before per understat). They are conceding slightly worse chances in open play as well.

Even accounting for the weak counter-press, I believe Sarri’s rigid midfield composition is the biggest culprit for Chelsea’s failures. Let’s look at how each player’s role is hurting the team:

At the base of midfield, Jorginho acts as a hub of play, but his efforts are largely wasted by Chelsea’s lack of progression to useful areas. Jorginho is often pressed out of meaningful possession. Starting with the Spurs game, that’s how Chelsea’s circuits started failing. This could change if Sarri gets better ball players, and if a full preseason with them generates better build up. But that’s just one side of the ball. Defensively, Jorginho’s inconsistency at the base of midfield will always pose the team problems against potent attacking teams, even with a better counter-press. Premier League teams place a huge emphasis on winning 50-50 challenges through the air or in midfield, and most champions require physical presences in defensive midfield. Even Pep Guardiola has compromised by starting Fernandinho. The Brazilian is a better defensive presence than his past 6s, but worse on the ball.

On the left, Mateo Kovacic has never been great at playing high and between the opposition lines, but is certainly combative and skilled enough to function deeper. But for this team he needs to contribute in the final third. Defensively, he can’t compensate for his forwards’ poor pressing either. The Croatian has gotten the minutes he desired when he left Madrid, but in some pretty unsatisfactory conditions.

On the right side of midfield, N’Golo Kante is playing the Hamsik his role to the best of his abilities. He’s no Frank Lampard in attack, but his speed, tenacity and defensive prowess means he can find himself on the ball and driving forward in useful positions. The problem is that this role also demands runs into the box, and he can find himself far too high up the pitch when the ball is lost. Combine that with Jorginho and the attackers’ lack of defensive presence, and N’Golo Kante is a far smaller factor when Chelsea are out of possession. A team that is pretty bad at transition defense could use Kante in deeper areas.

For a quick fix, Sarri could move Kante and Kovacic into a double pivot. Cesc Fabregas would’ve been a useful third midfielder in that setup. The team could sit a little deeper, shore up the defense, and employ a more incisive style of play. The players would thrive with a little more space in transition. But the ceiling for such a set up would not be that high. The team would still struggle to find balance against deep blocks like every top team does. Pedro and Willian aren’t the forces they used to be. Getting Eden Hazard to track back or shoot more would still be a great challenge.

It’s hard to know if Sarri has been blindly sticking to his guns, or if he has agreed on a multi-year project with Chelsea’s executives. The former is possible, given Abramovich’s desire for flowing football at Stamford Bridge. Of course, the counterpoint is that Sarri did behave similarly at Napoli: playing rigid lineups, benching youth and failing to rotate.

Sarri’s deficiencies may not matter here, however, because Chelsea seem to be transitioning to the tier beneath the super-clubs like Arsenal did in the Emirates era. Their days of wild spending might be over. But they are lucky enough to have a manager who brought Napoli consistently better finishes in Serie A despite losing Higuain to his rivals in the middle of the project, and he did force some remarkably close title races against a club with far more resources. Chelsea are now competing against at least two richer teams in Manchester as well. Even accounting for the greater competition at the top of the Premier League, the upside with Sarri on a 3rd or 4th largest wage bill is pretty high.

For a team that isn’t spending as much anymore, and an owner who has always craved fluid football at Stamford Bridge, Sarri might be the right fit.

If Chelsea’s goal is to stick with Sarri, it would make no sense for him to overhaul the system for a quick fix. One could compare it to Manchester City’s situation in 2016/17. A lot of people tend to object to this notion because Guardiola’s positional play is both more sophisticated and malleable than the Chelsea manager’s relatively rigid style. This is absolutely true, but the evidence we have of Sarri’s abilities in Serie A bodes mostly well. His 91 point finish with Napoli last season was marked by:

  1. Napoli being the best team in Serie A from an overall performance and underlying number standpoint.
  2. Napoli arguably playing the most pleasing football in the world.
  3. Sarri’s total failure to rotate potentially costing the team the title.

You don’t accomplish that if your style of football can be neutralized within half a season like it has in the Premier League. Even if Serie A is not the same league, I doubt it’s any less competitive from a preparation standpoint. If anything, Italian coaches are known for their meticulous preparation.

Now, looking at the first two points, it’s hard to understate how much this being a post World Cup season has hurt Sarri, giving him less time to mould his team. Practice time is most essential for pressing and attacking schemes, which require a lot of coordination to play out successfully on the pitch. With a small overhaul, the team could improve greatly after a full preseason.

The third point is probably the most disturbing from a Chelsea point of view. Succeeding in the modern game, with a pressing style, is extremely challenging without rotation. This is an area where he will have to show growth.

A lot rides on Chelsea’s transfer ban. If they manage to put off the transfer ban with an appeal, Sarri could find use in players like Ruben Neves and James Rodriguez. Players like Atleti’s Koke, Saul or Rodri would strengthen their midfield for the foreseeable future as well. Antoine Griezmann may be on the market this summer. Of course, the Christian Pulisic signing could go either way.

Overall, it’s still hard to predict Chelsea’s power brokers. I believe they will almost certainly keep Sarri because of the transfer ban, if he qualifies for the Champions League. Regardless, it feels like Chelsea’s time at the top of European football is over for now. How close they can stay to the summit will depend on how much extra they can get out of their resources, whereas in the past they usually had one of the best squads around. They will have to exploit market inefficiencies to be successful.

In that sense, the patient and intelligent project overseen by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool isn’t a bad model to follow.