It seems increasingly likely in recent times that the Antonio Conte era at Chelsea is set to come to a relatively premature end.
Last season, when the Italian guided the Pensioners to the Premier League title and FA Cup final in his debut season in England – there was talk of an era of dominance set to be unleashed at Stamford Bridge for years to come. However, their title defence has gone up in smoke, Chelsea have exited the UEFA Champions League without mounting any form of challenge – and their hopes of silverware lie upon the FA Cup, an achievement unlikely to be deemed good enough given the investment in the squad over the summer transfer window.
The likes of Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley, Davide Zappacosta, Olivier Giroud and Emerson Palmieri have all arrived at the Bridge in recent months – yet have failed to make the impressions which were expected of them.
As always with the modern game, when talent falters – it is likely the manager who suffers the most.
With Conte seemingly headed for the exit door, who fits the profile for the exact kind of manager that Chelsea have been crying out for?
Luis Enrique is the name on everybody’s lips; the former Barcelona man currently on a coaching sabbatical, but keen to make a name for himself in England. Carlo Ancelotti has been touted for a return to his former club after a successful spell at Bayern Munich ended abruptly, while Monaco’s Leonardo Jardim and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone are names that never stray too far away from the Chelsea question.
However, when it comes to style, approach, outlook and philosophy – in recent times, one outstanding candidate has emerged for the manager’s post at Chelsea, and that is Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri.
Sarri is a character that isn’t particularly well-known outside of Italy, one who requires some researching before getting in tune with his tendencies and approaches. His appointment at Napoli had raised plenty of eyebrows given his relative lack of big-club experience, but since his management style has drawn similarities to that of Pep Guardiola – and Napoli have grown into a well-drilled side, with individuals flourishing thanks to the excellent man-management of approach of the Italian coach.
Sarri, who worked in banking before taking up football management as a full-time career is famously quoted as once saying:
“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.”
These words should particularly interest Chelsea supporters in the wake of two recent defeats. Conte’s tactics were widely scrutinised in the press after their 1-0 defeat to Manchester City, showing the champions-elect far too much respect, and looking devoid of ideas, almost accepting the inevitability of a loss. Also, in their recent Champions League second-leg defeat to Barcelona, Conte had warned his players that they were going to ‘suffer’ when facing the likes of Lionel Messi, seemingly ignorant to the fact that his side were deserving of victory in the reverse fixture, when Willian outshone the Argentinian in a display that saw many dare not write Chelsea off just yet.
What Chelsea possess in abundance is ability. The likes of Eden Hazard, Willian, Alvaro Morata, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and the like are all players who are more than capable of winning a game on their own at times. In N’Golo Kante, they have one of the most coveted defensive midfielders on the planet – while Bakayoko was a force to be reckoned with at Monaco, and should he iron out his issues at Chelsea, he could form a fantastic partnership with his fellow Frenchman. Cesar Azpilicueta is a born leader at the back, while Marcos Alonso is one of the most versatile and reliable footballers in the modern game at present.
In Thibaut Courtois, they have a goalkeeper who exudes both professionalism and reliability, whilst also withholding some unfulfilled potential yet to blossom.
So why isn’t it working out at Chelsea? For me, it is quite like the situation in the North of the country last season, at now champions-elect Manchester City. The talent is there, but it is simply not being nurtured in the right way. Transition takes time, but when potential begins to flourish, then it is not just the individual – but the team who reaps the reward.
Pep Guardiola has in twelve months turned Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling from respected players to feared opponents who for many have entered the argument for the world-class bracket. Sarri, has done the exact same at Napoli.
Prime examples would be the attacking duo of Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne. Mertens was tried up front after a failed spell as a winger at the Stadio San Paolo but is now regarded as one of the most prolific forwards in Italy thanks to the guidance of Sarri. Mertens scored 28 league goals in 2016/17, while notching 17 so far this campaign. Insigne has also followed suit, going from five goals in two campaigns – to 40 in two seasons.
Sarri is the exact kind of coach that Chelsea need, one who gets the best out of previously struggling individuals – and quite humorously, also one who hates the transfer market with passion, once labelling it as the ‘refuge of the weak’:
“I am a coach. Give me a group of players and I will coach them.”
His attitude is a far cry from that of Conte’s, who has bemoaned having to work with individuals that he insists he did not wish to sign. However, the most promising aspect of the Sarri way of thinking for Chelsea, must certainly be his policy toward youth, and his ability to bring younger players on to become established professionals.
Sarri was awarded the manager’s job at Napoli for his heroics at Empoli. He took the reigns at Empoli when the club languished in the Italian second division, Serie B. He guided them to a promotion play-off berth in his first campaign, before sealing automatic promotion just a year later. Many saw Empoli destined for relegation from Serie A, but Sarri used his banking knowledge combined with his footballing brain to set up a structured club with an excellent defence, finishing 15th in Serie A despite their tiny budget, winning plaudits all around and seeing one of their star players, Mirko Valdifiori, make it into the Italy squad for the first time – despite being 28 years old.
Sarri is accredited with bringing through some of the most sought after and talented footballers in Serie A in his time at Empoli. He brought through Albanian international Elseid Hasaj at the minnows, who now plays regularly for high-flying Napoli. Daniele Rugani was also instrumental at the back in the season where Empoli were promoted, and he now is an established Italian international who plies his trade with Juventus. Piotr Zielinski, Simone Verdi, and Mario Rui are also just a few more internationals who have Sarri to thank for where they are today.
Chelsea’s youth teams have had unprecedented successes in recent seasons but have never quite been able to make the breakthrough into the first-team at Stamford Bridge. The likes of Ryan Bertrand, Nathan Ake, Patrick Van Aanholt and Lucas Piazon are just a few names who spring to mind, but the latest crop of talent could be brought through by Sarri, a coach who believes that youngsters grow as a result of their mistakes.
Former Chelsea favourite Jody Morris now presides over their U18 sides, and the talent is quite plain to see – four consecutive FA Youth Cups, two UEFA Youth League titles, and two U18 Premier League titles since Morris became involved as assistant manager, before taking over in 2016.
There is talent on the field and talent waiting in the wings at Chelsea. Maurizio Sarri is the perfect man to bring it through, and further the legacy of Chelsea successes for years to come.
Many fear that we are headed for an era of Pep Guardiola dominance with Manchester City streets ahead of the opposition in the Premier League, but a Sarri-inspired Chelsea would be more than capable of challenging. Napoli fans had their scepticisms toward his appointment but now hail him as a cult hero, a no-nonsense manager with a passion for tradition and hunger for success, the like of which is rare to see in a modern game so fascinated with money and glamour.
Chelsea fans are dying to see entertaining football at Stamford Bridge, and ‘Sarri-ball’ is more than capable of providing it.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena