COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Chelsea’s decision to appoint Maurizio Sarri signified the club’s bold intention to do things differently.
This sort of audacious move had been seen before at Stamford Bridge – with the appointment of World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari (2008) and Andre Villas-Boas (2011) – but it never seemed to pan out, as the pair lasted seven and eight months respectively in west London.
The arrival of Sarri earmarked a change in the Blues’ modus operandi, and midfield controller Jorginho also arrived from Napoli in a big-money move. Able to control the tempo from deep and help recycle possession with short horizontal passes, the Brazil-born midfielder’s signing is set to facilitate a more possession-based style at Chelsea.
In all fairness, there’s really no conclusive evidence regarding an official bid from the club for the defender besides Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis’ accusation – levelled at Sarri – for trying to ‘dismantle’ his whole team.
While it’s easy to dismiss the links to the Senegal international as media conjecture - it may well be, in truth - future events in relation to transfer targets at the Bridge prompt a second thought. Having, supposedly, been rebuffed in their Koulibaly chase, the west London outfit turned their attentions to Juventus’ Daniele Rugani and, to a lesser extent, Mattia Caldara, to no avail.
The latter has since joined AC Milan in a swap deal involving Leonardo Bonucci, but when you consider the comments of the former’s agent regarding a ‘really big bid’ from Chelsea, you then understand just how much Sarri wanted a central defender that understands his idea of football.
Koulibaly and Rugani made 96 and 78 league appearances under the Italian manager - at Napoli and Empoli respectively - and failure to secure either may yet slow down the implementation of his tactic in the defensive phase of play.Inasmuch as Sarri’s repetitive attacking routines in training - with the aim of making his offensive strategy second nature to his players - are the main focus, he doesn’t neglect defensive positioning either, and having Koulibaly would’ve helped in easily passing his ideas across.
At Napoli, the Senegalese’s impressive ability on the ball helped the Partenopei play out from the back with great efficiency, while his organizational skills and reading of the game came to the fore whenever the Little Donkeys elected to either keep a high defensive line or drop deep to form a low block.
Of course K2 didn’t become an all-round sensation overnight; that came from putting in the hard yards on the training ground at Sarri’s constant behest, and the Italian has so much work to do with his current crop.Chelsea’s pre-season form, excluding the 2-0 Community Shield defeat to Manchester City, saw them concede just two goals in four appearances. At the other end though, they only found the back of the net on three occasions, and that ostensibly gives the impression of a solid defensive structure, with the attack needing more work. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Granted, their defence won’t face such opposition weekly in the Prem, while it should also be noted that N’Golo Kante - who does so much protecting the backline - missed all but the final half hour against Lyon. The side also has to acclimatize to playing four at the back again having played a three-man defence for the most part under Antonio Conte.
Yet, they’ll need to work very hard.
Against City, they seemed out of sync with the midfield and occasionally dropped deep when they should’ve held their line - perhaps a force of habit, having predominantly played with a low block under the previous head coach. And that created a huge gap in midfield which the Citizens capitalised upon. That flaw was also apparent in their pre-season games as well.
Of the options available to Sarri, Antonio Rudiger seems to be the only one sure of a place in central defence. Doubts remain about David Luiz and Gary Cahill in a back four, Andreas Christensen seems unable to rediscover his early Chelsea form, while the young Ethan Ampadu - who it has to be said is impressive for a 17-year-old - is unlikely to be thrown in the deep end so soon.
Sarri’s definitely got so much to do to whip his defence into shape.
Several critics questioned Roman Abramovich’s logic in jettisoning Conte having seen the former Italy boss secure a Premier League title and FA Cup win with the Blues in his two seasons respectively. Those same pundits thought it was wildly insane to plump for a man with whom there are absolutely no guarantees of success in Sarri.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the new man's failure to acquire Koulibaly from Naples will prove costly, and while there are definitely going to be growing pains, especially in the early stages, Sarri's overcome considerable challenges before, and has the nous to do so again.