Chelsea’s two biggest hires this season can transform the way the club has looked at their own football identity. Jorginho and Maurizio Sarri promise an era filled with sunshine at a place which is, not always rightly, infamous for its gloomy football.
Much was made of the role of marginal gains in British Cycling’s phenomenal success over the last decade. Even Big Sam got carried away with it while at Crystal Palace, trying to eke out a small improvements from his squad. “If you put two per cent on every player,” he wrote in a match’s programme notes, “that’s an overall 22% increase in how you play.” I’m not totally sure you get to aggregate the gains like that, but far be it from me to argue with Big Sam.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have been far too interested in financial marginal gains to the detriment of their players’ performance on the pitch. It was an awkward summer in West London. Antonio Conte’s impending exit from the club was the biggest open secret in football as Chelsea, unwilling to pay his severance, hoped someone would rid them of this troublesome manager. No one did. So, replacing him with Maurizio Sarri meant dealing with Napoli’s president/madman Aurelio de Laurentiis. Negotiations dragged on throughout the summer. Supposed deadlines came and went. Players did not know when to report back to training. Chelsea may have saved a few quid by delaying negotiations, but its dithering will cost millions if they miss out on the Champions League, Thibaut Courtois leaves the club in the lurch, and Conte wins a court case for constructive dismissal. Director of football Michael Emenalo left in November, and there is no discernable long term plan coming from Stamford Bridge. It is a textbook demonstration of the old adage, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
The Community Shield was a clear illustration of the difference between a team with a plan and a team that only recently learned its new purpose. Manchester City’s lineup was unexpectedly strong considering so many players were only just returning from the World Cup. These were motivated athletes hungry to begin the season and defend their title. Compare that attitude with Willian reporting to training five days late because of a “strange” passport issue, Eden Hazard taking an extra travel day, and Courtois going AWOL. One team was ready for this match, and one team was still very much trying to figure out where they even were in preseason.
Both teams came out in a 4-3-3 formation, intent on playing a high defensive line with aggressive pressing and a possession based game. With the similar approaches, it all came down to who could execute better. Spoiler alert: it was the side with the stronger lineup playing in a familiar system. Sergio Aguero’s first goal in the 13th minute was the result of Chelsea’s inexperience pressing higher up the pitch. As City knocked the ball around in the backline, Jorginho stepped out of midfield to pressure Fernandinho. Once Fernandinho moved the ball to Aymeric Laporte, Jorginho turned and motioned for one of the center backs to cover the space soon to be vacated by Cesc Fabregas as he stepped up to close the ball down. Instead, old habits kicked in and Chelsea’s backline dropped deep. Cue a neat ball to Bernardo Silva sitting in a lovely pocket of space between the lines; the Portuguese simply popped a quick pass to an onrushing Phil Foden, who then then laid it off to Aguero to do Aguero things.
Much ink will be spilled by the British press over the next few weeks about that run by Foden as they seek a new saviour of English football. There will be strong adjectives like “surging” and “storming.” In truth, the teenager merely ran through a gigantic N’Golo Kante shaped hole in midfield after Laporte and Silva did all the work. Bernardo Silva actually deserves a great deal of praise for the way he repeatedly took up dangerous positions and drove through Chelsea’s midfield during this match. Hindsight is 20/20, but I am beginning to think Chelsea picked the wrong midfielder from Monaco last summer.
But at least Sarriball is exciting. I may betray my preference for a more pragmatic style though when I say it is too exciting. Even with Kante in the side, I fear a driving run at Chelsea’s backline will be an all too common sight this season. I still shudder when I think of the last time the club appointed a manager with a preference for a high line: the dumpster fire days of Andre Villas Boas.
However, Sarri has already won me over by bringing Jorginho with him from Napoli. Yes, the Brazilian-born Italian was not at his best against, but I’m willing to find any number of excuses for him. He is a joy to watch as he motors around the pitch, seeking the ball and directing traffic. The rest of the Premier League should all send a Thank You card around to Chelsea for ensuring he didn’t join this already frighteningly good City team.
The Citizens won the match at a canter, but there are some promising signs for Chelsea supporters at the beginning of this season. First, the club managed to keep Hazard after a summer when it appeared he was ready to move on; had his idol, Zinedine Zidane, not left Real Madrid earlier, I am fairly sure we would be watching Hazard’s unveiling video right now. Another bright spot is the emergence of 17-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi. He has been electric all throughout preseason. Foden is great and all, but English football should put more hope in Hudson-Odoi as its next big thing.
Speaking of English football’s next big thing, former holder of the title, Ross Barkley, doesn’t look half bad in Sarri’s system. The Italian coach has repeatedly spoke about bringing fun back to the football at Stamford Bridge. Any player capable of this is fun. I was baffled as to how he would fit in Conte’s workmanlike Chelsea last season, but his strength and ability on the ball could come in handy during 2018/19.
As enjoyable to watch as this team might be under their new boss, they still lost 2-0. Conte’s incredibly defensive approach to the City match last spring was widely criticised, but at least he only lost 1-0 (and had Marcos Alonso not wasted a glorious chance at the end we would all be hailing it as a Conte masterstroke). The board’s indecisiveness over managers, transfers, and contract extensions has ensured Chelsea are nowhere near ready for the start of the season, and it showed against the reigning champions. Oh well. At least they’ll entertain on their way to finishing outside the Champions League places again.