The first interesting thing about Maurizio Sarri’s answer was how long he took to contemplate the question. Usually, wearied managers rattle through their post-match press conferences as rapidly as possible, eager to get back to the sanctity of the dressing room before departing on the team bus. And yet here was Sarri, head bowed, taking his time to deliberate.
The second interesting thing was the answer itself. “If we want to defend by looking only at the ball, we need to stay very compact and we need to press in the other half,” Sarri finally said, in response to a fairly routine question on how he plans to iron out the defensive mishaps which allowed Arsenal back into Saturday’s entertainingly chaotic London derby. “In fifteen minutes, we were not able to do this. And so we were in trouble.”
Welcome to Sarriland, where attack is always the best form of defence and there is always, always room to press the opposition just that little bit harder. Against Arsenal, his fledgling side went from breathtakingly brilliant to downright bad and then back again, so nearly throwing three points away in one dismal quarter of an hour only for Marcos Alonso to preserve their perfect start with a late, late winner.
“I enjoyed the match for 75 minutes, but for the rest it would have been better if I was smoking,” a relieved Sarri later added.
The rather endearingly shabby Italian — seriously, just how does he manage to make a box fresh club tee look quite so ill-fitting? — arrived in southwest London promising fun and excitement and on Saturday Chelsea delivered both. More importantly, his side also provided a tantalising glimpse of what life could come to look like under his rule: an opening twenty minute spell during which blue shirts seemed to be everywhere, with a panicked Arsenal pegged back in a manner that not even Manchester City had managed.
Their shimmering start quickly faded from view of course, as first Henrikh Mkhitaryan and then Alex Iwobi took advantage of some criminally lax defending to drag Arsenal back into the game, and there were other signs that the slick ‘Sarri-ball’ which characterised Napoli’s play last season is yet to be completely introduced. Jorginho is sublime on the ball but concerningly lightweight off it — a weakness exacerbated by the pivotal role he occupies in Sarri’s system — while out wide Chelsea were shredded by Nacho Monreal and Héctor Bellerín with alarming regularity.
Both of Arsenal’s goals originated from poor defending on the flanks, with Alonso in particular struggling when stationed back in his own half. The Spaniard may be a brilliant player but he is not a natural full-back and never will be, although he can be justifiably hacked off by the number of times an ill-disciplined Willian strayed out of position, leaving him in impossible 2v1 defensive situations.
That Alonso is a flying wing-back, rather than a full-back at home in a traditional four-man defence, has led to speculation over how long Sarri will persevere with him on the left-hand side of his famously uncompromising 4-3-3. And yet against Arsenal there was not a player who embodied his direct, hard-running style of play more. As Chelsea chased the game Sarri waved Alonso onwards, and it was fitting that he was the man to pop up with the winner.
The very fact that Sarri is still clearly in the process of untangling the tactical influence of Antonio Conte and imposing his own intensive philosophy — “we need to improve and I hope we will be able to play 90 minutes like the first 25 in a few months” he noted after the game — should encourage supporters further. Chelsea are a work in progress and yet still they have hit the ground running, already boasting a six point lead over Emery’s Arsenal, a direct rival for the top four.
It is testament to their strength in depth that they have managed all that without Eden Hazard starting against either Huddersfield or Arsenal. The Belgian may have been restricted to a second-half cameo on Saturday but was brilliant all the same: only Mkhitaryan and N’Golo Kante made more key passes than him, while nobody managed more successful dribbles. And even more importantly it was Hazard who engineered the winning goal, finding Alonso with an inch-perfect low pass after a characteristically impish run forward.
For all the talk of his purported unhappiness at the club, Hazard was beaming after this win. “He is the kind of manager who wants the ball, to control the ball,” he said in response to a question about his new manager, before adding: “I want to play and have the ball at my feet. We have players who can do something magic. He is a great manager, like we had before.”
As Sarri was so keen to stress Chelsea are not the finished article and it is ludicrously early to talk about them as title contenders, especially given the emphatic nature in which Manchester City beat them just two weeks ago in the Community Shield. And yet as Hazard noted, they are a team packed full of players capable of producing moments of magic, coming to terms with a new style of play at an already impressive rate.
What is certain is that, after such a tumultuous summer, Chelsea have started the season in the best way possible.
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