Commentary

Blues' inadequacies mean more hard work for coach

Maurizio Sarri is, like most of his fellow Premier League super coaches, unlike his predecessor, an ideologue: he has a set way of playing, a brand of football - Sarriball - and he will not diverge from his principles.

He will not, as Antonio Conte so dramatically and successfully did, change his system to fit the resources at his disposal.

Instead, it will be the players who are subjugated to the system - some will fit, some will not.

One principle the 59-year-old Sarri will not compromise is his preference for a tracksuit in the dugout: sure enough, there he was, liveried in royal-blue athleisure during his Chelsea side's 2-0 defeat by Manchester City in the Community Shield on Sunday.

Other Sarri trademarks are more tailored, like his 4-3-3 formation. Cesar Azpilicueta, who has filled in serenely at centre-back for the past two seasons, is back in his "natural" position of right-back.

Without the security of an extra defender, the rivets in Chelsea's back four will have to be that much tighter. That is likely to have implications for David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, two attacking defenders who can look princely as they canter out of defence, manes flowing, but somewhat more dishevelled going backwards.

Sarri talked up Luiz's importance before the match but would not have enjoyed the way the Brazilian stood off far too deep for Sergio Aguero's first goal, then didn't track him for his second.

During a water break, Luiz received an instruction communicated by his Italian manager hitting the heel of one hand into the palm of the other, which looked like "Get tighter!".

Luiz's accomplished long diagonal passing may prove useful, but first he must prove he can cut it in a back four.

Midfield is another area of intrigue. Jorginho, £50.4 million (S$89.5 million) acquisition from Sarri's Napoli outfit, will fill the deep-lying role. Signs of his influence were a little hard to discern, to be honest.

Asked what he most admired about Guardiola, Sarri said: "The ability to personalise his team and give them an identity."
​It is surely Sarri's ambition to emulate that at Chelsea, but it is the kind of work that takes time.

N'Golo Kante, vastly missed here, will take one of the slightly more advanced slots when he returns, a role that may entail a slight shift in emphasis from scuttling to shuttling.

The other midfield slot - which in the Sarri prototype demands a mix of creativity and long-striding dynamism - is very much up for grabs, so this was an important audition for Cesc Fabregas and Ross Barkley, neither of whom stated a compelling case.

Their inadequacies may yet open the door for Ruben Loftus-Cheek - or the chequebook of Roman Abramovich.

Up front, Alvaro Morata continues to look like a man whose hair product has a firmer hold than his confidence.

There is a sense that things are approaching a reckoning there, and for all the sharp-elbowed competence of Olivier Giroud, you wonder whether Sarri may be tempted to repeat the trick of converting a diminutive Belgian winger into a false nine, as he did at Napoli.

If it can work with Dries Mertens, maybe it can with Eden Hazard.

In one sense, this match was a good yardstick: Pep Guardiola's City are the undisputed standard-setters. Asked what he most admired about Guardiola, Sarri said: "The ability to personalise his team and give them an identity."

It is surely Sarri's ambition to emulate that at Chelsea, but it is the kind of work that takes time.

He got off to a slow start at Napoli, before the long hours on the training ground worked their magic: it would be unwise to read too much into this result.

All the same, this was a missed chance to make a deposit in the trophy cabinet. Sarri never did win a Cup at Napoli; he will not get the same indulgence at Chelsea.

The hard work starts here. And, as this broiling summer gives way to the cool of autumn, Sarri's seat is only going to get hotter.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2018, with the headline 'Blues' inadequacies mean more hard work for coach'. Print Edition | Subscribe