To fully grasp Maurizio Sarri’s instructions and embrace his philosophy is “to play blind”, according to former Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina. Sarriball was always meant to be intuitive, which made it immediately peculiar why Chelsea failed to rush through a deal with Napoli last summer and gift him the luxury of a full pre-season.
A disgruntled Stamford Bridge is yet to warm to the precise methods of Sarri, mostly irked by his inflexible ways: the antithesis of what made many of the great Chelsea sides over the previous decade so formidable. But while Chelsea fans may lament what they perceive as a lack of patience from their latest Italian coach, the real Sarri is more similar than they might believe.
Sarri, too, despite being hindered from the start, is not one to rely on time for his methods to be fully grasped. In fact, Reina, now with AC Milan, reveals how the 60-year-old would drive his Napoli players “crazy” thinking about the game in “every minute” of the day. The upside is clear, too, having pulled off a “miracle” to almost break the Juventus monopoly on Serie A last term when they posted a heroic 91 points in vain.
Unlike some of his predecessors though, despite being an ideologue, he has proven he has the mettle; bending but not breaking throughout a tumultuous season that may now end on a career high by lifting the Europa League in Baku, should they overcome rivals Arsenal.
While Jorginho was pinpointed as the essence of Sarriball early on, goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga’s role has been equally vital. His public spat with his boss threatened to prematurely end Sarri’s reign in London before it had barely begun. But after the pair reconciled, the Basque shot-stopper has finished the season strongly, with his development running parallel with Sarri’s chances of success and longevity in west London.
“I really enjoyed playing under Sarri,” Reina told The Independent. “I consider myself good at it (playing the ball out as a goalkeeper to build the play). It depends on the philosophy of the manager and the team.
“Sarri uses it more than others because he likes to be able to exploit a good goalkeeper who has feet like that.”
“At some point, it (Sarriball) came natural to us , we played this way even blind. He just wants you to be brave on the ball and eventually it came natural.
“It’s all about executing: every league requires a different approach and in England the rhythm is different. In Italy they are tactically better and stronger, better positioned.”
Deprived of the chance to revamp the squad in order for his players to fully comprehend his ways, Sarri must rely on a slimmed-down version to clinch silverware. N’Golo Kante is now a major doubt and could join Antonio Rudiger, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the sidelines. And Unai Emery has Alexandre Lacazette at his disposal: who could prove deadly when given a sight on goal, but perhaps the main weapon in disrupting the flow of Sarriball.
These 17 days then could be vital for his methods to be drilled into his players, with the Thursday-to-Sunday turnaround often denying him the chance to comprehensively prepare in the way Antonio Conte did in his debut season in charge. Easily interpreted as a manager only willing to hone his own methods and patterns of possession, Sarri's is actually admired for his well-rounded knowledge.
“Sarri is a very complete manager,” Reina explained. “He is so cynical with every detail, every detail counts.
“It’s not just that (focusing on playing Sarriball). It can turn you crazy because he likes to think about football 24 hours per day.”
Leading a Chelsea side seemingly as vulnerable as ever in the Abramovich era, Sarri will have needed every hour at his disposal when kick-off arrives.
If the true essence of Sarriball is to ever materialise at Chelsea, it might well be tomorrow.
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