7 February 2019

Faith In Sarriball Tested (Sky Sports)

Maurizio SarriMaurizio Sarri's Chelsea project will take time but do they have the patience to stick with it? Perhaps they should heed the example of Manchester City, writes Adam Bate.

Gary Neville's insistence that Manchester United must never again appoint a manager whose ideas do not fit with the club's philosophy will have struck a chord with supporters. But what of those clubs actively seeking to develop a new philosophy? What is becoming increasingly clear is that there is a right and a wrong way to best facilitate that change.

Manchester City's pursuit of Pep Guardiola was lengthy, his Premier League arrival trailed for longer than a Marvel cinema release, but this was evidence of the thought that had gone into the appointment. Like a visiting dignitary, no expense was spared to make him feel welcome, as football was forced to familiarise itself with the phrase 'holistic approach'.

The recruitment of chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain had been necessary precursors. Both had held similar positions at Barcelona and they played a vital part in the wooing process, creating an environment into which the most revered manager in the game might not only be enticed but also feel free to flourish.

There were challenges, of course. A new goalkeeper was deemed essential and the first attempt to replace Joe Hart did not go well. Ageing full-backs needed to be upgraded and for some time there were concerns that Sergio Aguero would not prove the ideal fit for the high-tempo pressing that Guardiola demands of his forwards in the final third.

But the bigger picture revealed much that was right. The core principles were in place, from the type of player being moulded within City's ever-improving academy to the existing talent in the first team. It is difficult to think of a player who never got to wear the Barcelona shirt who would have fitted more seamlessly into Guardiola's great side than David Silva.

Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling were also recruited in Manuel Pellegrini's final season with the Chilean coach serving his function as the facilitator, playing a brand of football that would not need unlearning under his successor. This was, far too literally for Pellegrini's liking in the final months of his reign, a team that was simply waiting for Guardiola.

Even that was not enough to ensure instant success for Manchester City under their chosen coach but when times were tough it will have helped add to the conviction that they must continue on the journey. Contrast that with the environment into which Maurizio Sarri has been expected to import his off-the-shelf playing philosophy at Chelsea this season.

Here too there was a palpable appetite for change with the desire to move away from the counter-punching style of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte clearly strong. But despite the protracted process that led to the appointment that launched a thousand Twitter handles, Chelsea's decision to turn to Sarriball did not feel prepared for in quite the same way.

For many pundits, it is the sight of N'Golo Kante, surely the finest holding midfielder in the world, being played out of position in the right channel that has been so jarring. But it cannot have come as a surprise to Sarri's employers that he has had to displace Kante in order to accommodate Jorginho, the deep-lying playmaker his vision of the game demands.

How Sarri must wish that were the only stylistic mismatch he has inherited with this Chelsea squad. David Luiz's successful second spell at the club has come with him at the centre of a back three but that role has also disappeared. So too the left wing-back position that Marcos Alonso had such success with in the title-winning season under Conte.

Eden Hazard's long-term future remains in the balance but after a promising start under Sarri, he had his wings clipped in a central role. The hope now is that he can strike up a bond with Gonzalo Higuain but for now it can be said that Hazard and Kante, Chelsea's two world XI candidates, have both found themselves compromised tactically this season.

The temptation is to demand that the coach maximises the resources of the existing squad, but this would make a nonsense of Sarri's appointment in the first place. He was not brought in for his ability to wheel, deal and cut the cloth accordingly. The reason he was sought out was because Chelsea had been sold on his vision and his job now is to deliver it.

The club has been here before, of course. Chelsea once recruited the in vogue Andre Villas-Boas amid chatter about instituting a different style of play, one that would be more pleasing to supporters. That approach featured the use of a high defensive line at a time when the team's back-four was still built on the foundation of John Terry's captaincy.

Terry had more than enough life left in him to show that Chelsea could still win matches, trophies and titles by defending the penalty box and the experiment was soon abandoned. Once again the club finds itself at a crossroads where it is presented with the option of committing itself fully to a philosophy - and that will mean looking beyond the short term.

Given that they can no longer financially outmuscle their rivals, there will be those who argue that Chelsea must eschew the quick fix mentality if they are to make the next leap. The alternative could leave them strategically outmaneuvered by City and the rest - a club never more than a couple of sackings away from the calls for Mourinho's next return.

But there will be others who offer a different warning. Continuing along the wrong path and failing to correct course could prove worse than having no direction at all. Villas-Boas' underwhelming efforts since leaving Stamford Bridge only serve to highlight the dangers of placing too much faith in the wrong man. Beware worshipping false idols. But which is Sarri?

Could he really be one of the game's great innovators, a man waiting to revel in the glory his wonderful Napoli side might have been capable of realising with time and money? Or have the limitations already been exposed by Jorginho's struggles and the sterility of his team's possession? The truth surely lies in the middle but it is for Chelsea to consider.

Whatever they decide comes at a cost. Failing to best utilise Kante is an opportunity lost. Abandoning trust in Sarri to make the sort of changes that were no doubt anticipated as likely from the outset, would feel like a misstep too. Either way, these are problems that might well have been avoided if Chelsea had more clarity about the club it wants to be.

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