Chelsea were the underdogs when Conte took charge; so are they under Sarri. Will history repeat itself? Let's dig into the different aspects of both situations.
Oh, how happy we all are at the moment! Well, by 'we' I mean all of us football fans. The football season is finally up and running, and games are coming thick. Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and of course the Champions league (yeah Europa League too, if you are an Arsenal or Chelsea fan), all are coming in full throttle. Professional footballers may not necessarily enjoy it but as football fans, we love the thrill of having a football game every three days. The footballing season is truly back.
That's not the only reason why we are here though, are we? So, let's get to business. Let's talk about Chelsea, let's talk football.
Perfect season yet?
When the Premier League season began, no one was expecting Chelsea to stake a claim for the title. Heck, even I put them below Arsenal in my season predictions in one of the blogs I wrote earlier. And here we stand, six games into the season with Chelsea looking like a title contender. The unexpected draw against a brave West Ham team did hurt Chelsea. But they still are undefeated, have 16 points and are comfortably sitting in the top 3. Time and again football has reiterated the futility of making predictions in this game. And that is absolutely the reason we love this game so much.
No one would have expected Chelsea to be where they are after six games. And though it is too early to make anything out of their current form, the initial signs are encouraging.
Story so far
From what we've seen from Chelsea up until now, it's fair to say that they have not found their mojo yet. It's more about hit and miss. We have not seen the most attractive football from them and more often than not, Chelsea had to grind out results than just cruise to victory. Their defense is clearly their weakest point and any top team will be counting on creating a mess of it.
Sarri's Chelsea looks like a team in transition. That itself makes their feat even more impressive. They are third in the league without even getting in full gear. I can only imagine Chelsea getting better when all the players get in line with Sarri's style of play.
Pedro has looked like a player reborn. He has been a crucial cog in Sarri's unit, even reminiscent of his Barca days. Willian is definitely happier playing under Sarri than he was under Conte. We are also realizing why Guardiola was so interested in signing Jorginho and why Sarri brought him along. Jorginho is crucial for Sarri to implement his style of play at Chelsea. He has been instrumental in these initial games, making more passes than any other outfield player. Giroud, especially in recent weeks, has shown how he could be the perfect 'target man' for Chelsea. Giroud's link-up play with Hazard has got Chelsea fans excited for a budding formidable partnership. And then there's the man himself, Eden Hazard. We'll talk about him in length.
The Hazard Factor
One person who has been the highlight of Chelsea's initial dominance is Hazard. The guy has been in sensational form. Hazard's purple patch has given support to the cries of him being on the same level as Messi and Ronaldo. Recently, even Sarri himself admitted how he initially underestimated Hazard and now believes that Hazard is the best in Europe. His improvement under Sarri has been remarkable. Sarri has shown faith in Hazard's abilities and believes he can go on and score 40 goals a season. Hazard has been duly responding to his manger's faith. Also, given the much-publicized struggles of Morata, Hazard could prove to be Chelsea's biggest attacking threat this season. Sarri has done the same with Insigne and Mertens while at Napoli.
The way Sarri has adapted to Premier League has reminded many of Conte's first season in charge of Chelsea. At that time too, no one was expecting Conte to provide any serious challenge for the title. But Conte took a team that finished 10th in the preceding season and helped them win the title. His decision to play with three defenders at the back proved revolutionary in England. Even the most vociferous of his critics started adopting his tactics.
A similar kind of situation also seems to surround Sarri. Many are again skeptical if the Italian's tactics will be successful in England. And again, up until now, an Italian has managed to surprise people in England. It all seems too Conte-esque. Will he be able to deliver a title like Conte? Well, we can just wait.
Conte vs Sarri
We talked how the two Italians seem to have similarities. But they are as different as they come. Be their dressing preferences (well, who doesn’t like Sarri’s chilled out attires) or their approach towards football, there seem to be many differences. In terms of tactics, Conte is famous for using the '3-5-2' formation. Though he led Juventus to the summit of Italian football, people in England were still skeptical about the success of his tactics in the Premier League, a league which many still consider tactically inferior to other leagues. But Conte's decision to shift to three at the back after defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal proved to be a masterstroke. Alonso and Moses proved lethal as wing-backs. Chelsea never looked back after that tactical switch and won the league in an emphatic fashion. Conte's teams are primarily known for their defensive solidity and direct style of play. They are not particularly known for dominating possession. His teams usually are most lethal through quick counter attacks.
Sarri though is a different man. As opposed to Conte's defensive qualities, Sarri is known for playing attacking football. Sarri's teams usually dominate possession. It's a high press, quick-passing football, even similar to Guardiola's style of play. While in Napoli, Sarri's quick, short passing with an intent to move forward earned this style the name 'Sarri-ball'. Napoli played some of the most breathtaking football last season and took the title challenge to Juventus. This is no less feat considering the players he had at his disposal at Napoli. Bringing the best out of his players is Sarri's strong suit. At numerous times, Sarri has admitted how he considers himself more of a coach than a manager.
Another major similarity between Chelsea of Conte and Chelsea of Sarri is their underdog status. There are only a few people who actually believe that Chelsea can win the title. With most of the focus on Liverpool and City, Chelsea are enjoying the underdog status. Since there is not much pressure on them in terms of expectations, they can subtly go about their business. And who knows, by the time May arrives, we may still see Chelsea on the top.
Some Teething Issues
All being said, there are few things Chelsea need to sort out if they are to compete with the likes of Liverpool and City. Chelsea right now, do not have a reliable goal scorer among their ranks. Morata, who was signed last year with a lot of promise has failed miserably. People were expecting his second season to be much better, but it has been the same old story with him. He looks bereft of confidence, poor in finishing and has been missing a lot of chances. For a striker, they are not good signs. Giroud is a great backup but he cannot be the main man.
Defense is another area of concern. David Luiz doesn't look solid enough for a sustained title challenge and his partner Rudiger is inconsistent. Considering that Sarri likes to play a very high line, his defense should be absolutely world class. Otherwise, it would be easier for opposing teams to hurt them. Sarri has admitted time and again that their defense is not up to the mark.
If they can hold on until the winter transfer window, Sarri would definitely be bringing some new faces, especially in defense. Moreover, Sarri arrived late at Chelsea and couldn't have a proper transfer window. So, even Abramovich would be open to supporting Sarri in the transfer window. Things are going to get interesting as the season progresses, and we’ll be keeping an eye. Well, thank goodness football is back.
Meanwhile, international football is going through a transformation too. Check out this earlier post about the UEFA Nations League.
Author: Shikhil Vyas