On a summer day in 2003, the fax machine at Gianfranco Zola’s office buzzed with an unexpected message. It was a request, more like an ‘offer you can’t refuse’, from Russian billionaire and Chelsea football club’s new owner Roman Abramovich. He desired to retain Zola, who had left Chelsea in the summer for his hometown club Cagliari and was willing to pay £3 million as wages to the Italian, and another £1 million to Cagliari to buy out the contract.
— Firstpost (@firstpost) July 16, 2018
As rumours go, the diminutive attacker, who was a key figure in Chelsea’s Champions League berth-clinching 2002-03 campaign, had played a huge role in convincing Abramovich to buy the debt-ridden London club. He wanted Zola in his Chelsea, and the team’s football to be modelled around the attacking guile that the Italian brought to the football field.
Zola rejected the offer to stay true to his promise to Cagliari but the fax message was a precursor to how Abramovich would function — he gets what he wants. Soon an army of international players was gathered at the Stamford Bridge. A roaring lion with a sceptre replaced the old laid-back lion on Chelsea’s crest. The intention was clear — to win but also win by playing attractive football.
Unfortunately for Abramovich, the king he chose to run his empire (after giving a season to Claudio Ranieri), Jose Mourinho, came from a different school of thought, where winning was all that mattered. Mourinho, in his first stint at Chelsea, instilled his DNA into the Chelsea team, making them winners, although not by playing the football Abramovich craved for. The marriage didn’t last long with Mourinho leaving the club in his third season with the Blues. A herd of managers (10 including two stints by Guus Hiddink) occupied the helm at Chelsea, won trophies aplenty, but alas, failed to deliver the football their Russian owner desired. Antonio Conte became the latest manager to be sacked by Chelsea on Friday.
Appointing Maurizio Sarri, the banker who turned into a football coach to help Empoli and Napoli scale new heights in the Italian leagues, is Abramovich’s latest attempt at bringing attractive football to Stamford Bridge. The bespectacled tactician, known for his smoking habits on the pitch, doesn’t come with the same reputation as Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti, but his work at Napoli has earned him praise within the footballing world. The manager is notoriously famous for his work ethic, as is obvious from his desire to live at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham, and encourages his team to play attacking football, often called ‘Sarri-ball’ or the vertical tiki-taka. “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,” the Italian said during the 2015-16 campaign with Napoli. The Sarri-ball is his solution the problem – a possession-based style with plenty of short, quick passes but with an emphasis on moving up the pitch quickly.
In simpler terms, it is the best of Spanish football and the best of German football integrated into one formation. Sarri’s Napoli liked to have the ball, but the objective was always to systematically move it forward unlike the Barcelona side who mastered the traditional tiki-taka, which involved horizontal passes that stretched the opposition team and made holes for key passes. Current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who implemented tiki-taka to perfection at Barcelona, was so impressed after facing Sarri’s Napoli in the Champions League in the 2017-18 season that he described the team as the best side he has faced in his career as a manager. While Sarri might not have titles to show for his time at Napoli and Empoli, he did beat title-winning Max Allegri to the Panchina d’Oro (award to given the best coach in Italian football) in the 2015-16 season.
If given time, this is what Sarri will bring to Chelsea. All 11 Napoli players took part in the build-up before the goal. #Sarrismo pic.twitter.com/8OghHd54sj — Everything Napoli (@NaplesAndNapoli) July 12, 2018
Sarri’s big break as a coach came in 2012, aged 53. He was hired by Empoli, then struggling in the lower ends of Serie B. A relegation survival would have been enough for Sarri to secure his job but the former banker ensured that the club reach the promotion play-offs in his first season.
In his second season, Empoli secured a promotion to top-division and in his third, the Florence-based team managed a respectable 15th position in Serie A with a shoe-string budget. It was not just the position that was impressive. Sarri’s Empoli were strong in defence – conceding the second least number of goals – and played a football that involved keeping possession of the ball.
His success at Empoli might have gone unnoticed by the media, but the football world had taken note of the late-blooming manager. According to various reports, Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary AC Milan coach, asked then AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi to sign Sarri as their manager. But Berlusconi hesitated and Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis came swooping in for the Sarri. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sarri introduced the famous Sarri-ball system and gave Juventus a tough battle in Serie A.
On a collision course
Things will not be easy for Sarri at Chelsea though. Unlike Napoli or Empoli, where players hadn’t tasted a lot of success, Chelsea are a club with a winning DNA. It remains to be seen if the players at the London club will accept Sarri’s demands of an attractive, fast-paced football, especially having a played a counter-attacking, defence-first football for most of their time in London.
Sarri won’t be the first attractive-football-playing manager their Russian billionaire manager has appointed. Remember what happened to Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas? Chelsea never bought into their ideology and eventually led to the sacking of the managers.
Chelsea are a club built on a tough defence. They have always been tough to crack but didn’t often play the most flamboyant of football. In fact, judging by the club’s history, it wouldn’t be Chelsea if they didn’t resist Sarri’s policies. To ensure a smooth functioning environment for Sarri, Chelsea will have to support him in the transfer market.
At Napoli, he played he deployed a 4-3-3, with two centre-backs who were comfortable with the ball, had great distribution and were athletic. While Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger fit the description, Gary Cahill and David Luiz’s future will be in doubt. Chelsea have been linked with Juventus’ Daniele Rugani, a young centre-back whom Sarri managed at Empoli, while returning Kurt Zouma also offers a fresh option.
Similarly, his midfield trio included a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box player and a playmaker. In N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, he has strong and athletic midfielders, but Cesc Fabregas might struggle in the advanced role. But with Ruben Loftus-Cheek set to be given a major role in Chelsea, and Jorginho all but confirmed, the midfield looks ready to play Sarri-ball.
If rumours are true, Sarri will also be assisted by Zola. The former Chelsea player has a decent resume as a coach, having managed West Ham United, Watford and Birmingham City in England and is a favourite amongst Chelsea fans. He will also be able to act as a mediator between the players and the manager, thereby easing the transition. Zola’s agent has publicly expressed his client’s desire to work with “idol” Sarri and his appointment would mark the perfect end to a 15-year-long cycle that started with Abramovich sending a fax message asking Zola to join his empire. The question is whether the end of the cycle will produce the football that Abramovich craves for at Chelsea.
One thing is for sure, with Sarri’s appointment, the Premier League will become richer with another coach who has a distinct, positive approach to football. Imagine Sarri-ball, Guardiola’s tiki-taka, Klopp’s gegen-pressing, Unai Emery and Mourinho’s counter-attacks, and some good old English long-ball game in the Premier League next season.