A new manager has graced the Stamford Bridge hot seat. The excitement of new possibilities is slightly negated by the angst of uncertain outcomes. Stability might be few right decisions away, crisis awaits otherwise. Chelsea Football Club is at crossroads again. There is anxiety in the air, but it’s the familiarity with the situation that is more troubling.
Two years after appointing Antonio Conte as their manager, winning the Premier League and FA Cup in between, Chelsea’s relationship with the Italian deteriorated to a point of no return. The Blues were on a managerial pursuit once again.
Chelsea’s journey over the past decade has been quite enigmatic. Neither ecstasy nor agony has been able to hold fort in the Stamford Bridge terraces for too long. Change has become a part of the fabric in south-west London so much so that that it’s the only constant.
Chelsea's latest attempt at bucking the trend of managerial merry-go-round came in the form of chain-smoking Italian manager Maurizio Sarri, also an ex-banker.
Sarri’s appointment straightaway shattered a few conventions in the Blues' recruitment pattern. The Italian had no silverware to decorate his CV. His teams played an attacking and flamboyant style of football with little emphasis on caution.
“If I saw my team defending and counter-attacking after 30 minutes I would get up and return to the bank because I would not be having fun,” Sarri had said after facing the pragmatic Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid. That is a far cry from Conte’s taxing ways or Jose Mourinho's meticulous methods where playing with a degree of pragmatism was appreciated. ‘Work’ was Conte’s go-to word in the press conferences. For Sarri it is ‘fun’.
A lot of Chelsea’s struggles this season will be about transitioning from the ‘hardworking’ unit under Conte to being the fun-loving, flamboyant side that Sarri wants to see. That process has been made even more difficult by the late arrival Chelsea’s World Cup stars, and the less time that Sarri has had to impart his ideas on to his squad members.
As Chelsea prepare to inculcate Sarri-ball — Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation, let’s take a look at how Chelsea shape up in the three departments:
Will Alvaro Morata come good?
Chelsea struggled to score goals last season as they finished fifth in the Premier League. They were the lowest scorers among the top six teams. The Blues haven’t added to their forward line, but their biggest victory has been retaining the services of Eden Hazard and to an extent Willian.
The duo will be supported by Pedro and Callum Hudson-Odoi, the 17-year-old prodigy who has been Chelsea’s best player in pre-season. Sarri has confirmed the England U-18 international won’t be loaned out and is a part of his plans.
Up front is where the problem lies. Morata who signed for a hefty fee of £58m last season, has failed to find his feet in England. After a quick start, Morata lost his way due to injuries and was never able to get his confidence. Chelsea’s poor run of form coincided with his absence. However, Sarri and Chelsea have decided to put faith in the troubled striker.
Olivier Giroud is the back-up option, with one of Michy Batshuayi and Tammy Abraham adding up to the options. However a lack of a 20-goal striker will mean the pressure to create and score will fall on the shoulders of Hazard and Willian. That will only play in the hands of the opponents who will find it easier to suffocate Chelsea.
Morata showed at the start of last season, that he has what it takes to be the 20-goal striker and Chelsea’s season will largely rest on his performance.
Midfield strength gives Blues hope
Chelsea have struggled for balance in central midfield since the departure of Nemanja Matic. New signing Tiemoue Bakayoko found those boots too big to fill and Conte was left trying and testing various combinations to find balance.
Under Sarri, Chelsea are expected to play a midfield three and the Italian identified the central midfield area where the Blues needed most reinforcements. The board delivered by bringing in Jorginho from Napoli and securing a loan deal for Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic. The duo will add much needed craft to Chelsea’s midfield that includes N’Golo Kante — the best ball-winner in world football. The combination of Jorginho, Kante and Kovacic is a perfect blend of athleticism and technique, qualities that are essential to function in the midfield three of Sarri’s 4-3-3 shape.
With Cesc Fabregas, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Danny Drinkwater as back-up, the midfield is Chelsea’s strongest area. Expect Chelsea to dominate possession in many games this season. So if the forwards can improve on their goal tallies from last season, Chelsea would have a great chance to have a successful season.
Dodgy defence could be Chelsea’s Achilles Heel
Under Sarri, Chelsea will go back to a back four from the back three that Chelsea played last season under Conte. The Blues mostly sat deep, absorbed pressure and hit teams on the break.
However, in Sarri’s new system, Chelsea will play a high-defensive line to press the opponents in their own half.
Playing a high line requires intelligent and quick defenders who are also good on the ball as the defence line is often the first line of attack. Chelsea chased the signature of Daniele Rugani of Juventus all summer but failed in the bid, leaving them with the same set of defenders from last season.
The likes of David Luiz, Gary Cahill might not have the legs to successfully play in high-pressing defence. Luiz was badly exposed by Sergio Aguero in the Community Shield and was at fault for both goals Chelsea conceded.
So the onus will be on Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen to guard the Blues’ central defensive areas. In the full-back positions, Cesar Azpilicueta will play at right back and the role of a conservative full-back. Marcos Alonso will be given license to go forward from the left-back position, but his lack of pace could see him exposed if he’s caught high up on the pitch.
Chelsea don’t have great resources in the reserves with Emerson Palmieri and Davide Zappacosta providing alternatives. Teenager Ethan Ampadu has shown plenty of promise in the few chances he has got since last season, but he might be too young to be thrown into regular action at the age of 17.
To add to the defensive uncertainty, Chelsea lost goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on the penultimate day of the English transfer window. With little time to find a replacement, the Blues had to pay world-record fee for a goalkeeper to land Kepa Arrizabagala from Athletic Bilbao.
Kepa is just 23 but has impressed with his performances in La Liga. However the Spaniard will take time to adjust to life in England and develop an understanding with his defenders.
If Sarri is able to sort the defence out early on, Kepa will find it much easier to find his feet at Stanford Bridge.
However, the defence could the Achilles Heel for Chelsea this season and teams could target the obvious weaknesses in their back line as the season progresses.
Sarri needs time to get Chelsea playing the beautiful football that Roman Abramovic has carved for years. Inheriting a side that finished outside the top four and one that was built to play an entirely different system, Sarri has his work cut out.
After a number of failed attempts, Chelsea have another opportunity to achieve managerial stability. The slightly different appointment shows Roman Abramovich might be prepared to give his latest Italian recruit a much longer rope.
Sarri, however, will have to find a golden mean between the owner’s fickle desires: To achieve success while playing beautiful football. Failure on either front, and the proximity to the proverbial sack will make his time at Stamford Bridge anything but ‘fun’.
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Updated Date: Aug 09, 2018 19:05:29 IST