Since buying Chelsea in 2003, Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich has longed for three things. Success in England, success in Europe, and to do it all playing attractive football.
Several millions later, he cracked the code to the Premier League title in two years, and has won 15 domestic trophies during his tenure. And they conquered Europe against all odds, beating Bayern to win the Champions League in 2012 and the Europa League a year later. But through all that success, his sides have never been the most stylish.
Their two most recent managers, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, are famed for a defensive approach. Left behind this season by sides like Manchester City and Liverpool, who play exciting attacking football, Chelsea have targeted a man who does this brand better than most in Maurizio Sarri. His patented ‘Sarriball’ has turned Napoli into a force to be admired for their football and their achievements. It’s quick, it’s incisive and it’s entertaining.
Pep Guardiola, both an admirer and exhibiter of attacking football, paid Sarri perhaps the greatest compliment to his Napoli side after a win with Manchester City. “They are one of the best teams I think in Europe – probably the best team I've faced in my career.”
After a toxic season on and off the pitch, they need a change, and Sarri can be that breath of fresh air. Chelsea’s squad has as much quality as Napoli’s and is certainly deeper. One would envision Eden Hazard to be the main beneficiary of his management, freed up to play his game in a system geared to giving him the ball in advantageous positions like it does for Lorenzo Insigne or Dries Mertens. Willian and Pedro also can run in behind from wide positions.
He may look to a new right-back, and getting the right pieces in midfield will be a priority. With one or two additions, maybe he can get them playing the way he wants before too long.
Not that the 59-year-old will swagger in on the first day with a particularly long list of world class player demands, like his predecessor. After Higuain’s record €90m move to Juventus, the tactician didn’t want a big-money replacement. In fact he once called the transfer market “something that bad Coaches seek refuge in.” He prefers to improve players, which could breathe new life into the likes of Tiemoue Bakayoko, Ross Barkley and Alvaro Morata, whose quality has been called into question.
Sarri will do everything in his power to make his system work. Which might be his undoing.
The only Coach to truly try and break the mould at Chelsea under Abramovich was Andre-Villas Boas. Young and ambitious, but his attempts at playing a high line with an ageing John Terry saw him out of a job before the season was through. The players were not comfortable with it, but more importantly they stopped winning. As flashy as Chelsea’s football may be under Sarri, if results don’t follow, he won’t be there too long.
Napoli picked things up quickly in their first season with him. After one win in five, they then only lost once in the next 19. But coming off the back of a World Cup, and with most of his staff staying behind at Napoli, pre-season won’t be the smoothest.
Sarri won’t fight transfers like Conte did, but God forbid if you try to tell him how to play football. Some managers are more malleable, but Chelsea always go for the best. And the best are more often than not dead set on doing things their way.
Moreover, for a club where success is everything, Sarri’s CV is a little lacking in silverware. He has won a few personal accolades, but little else in his 13 years as a Coach. In the bubble of Serie A, finishing runners up to Juventus is an achievement, but no silverware casts doubts.
Far more decorated managers have been forced to clear out their office at Cobham for very little. Even an FA Cup win this year could not save Conte.
If anything, the last of Abramovich’s three objectives is a trap. Attractive football or any sort of progress towards it will always be a distant second to immediate success. Sarri needs to hit the ground running at Chelsea, or his stint at Stamford Bridge will be short-lived.