“Sarriball” the term first heard in Serie A is representation of Maurizio Sarri’s footballing philosophy. Interpretation of Sarriball is a fast; possession based playing style where Goal Keeper acts as a reference point to start the build-up play from defence. Outfield players are then expected to create a triangle shape formation on pitch with interchange of passes, and the last pass releasing a player to ensure vertical penetration in the opposition box.
Defensive component of Sarriball is to align off the ball movements without possession to cut out passing lanes or zones, and force opposition passes laterally instead through the middle to minimise goal scoring opportunities.
Maurizio Sarri was hired as Chelsea manager with the intent to change their philosophy and play the conventional term “Beautiful Football”. On the contrary, intent of change and results of change are not in alignment.
I have analysed four potential issues below to derive a conclusive summary on why Sarriball is not working as expected at Chelsea:
Problem 1 – Failure to accommodate reference points of domestic league
For any new coach in the Premier League, it is important to stick to their basic fundamentals, but to also accommodate vital references points which are requirements of league.
A classic example of this is the use of Fernandinho by Pep Guardiola. Though Pep’s fundamental style of play is possession based, he has not restricted the dirty tackling work of Fernandinho. With the Premier League being a high tempo league where 90% teams play on counter attack, a box-to-box Defensive midfielder is a vital reference point that any new coach should not miss. Pep has groomed Fernandinho’s passing skills and also allows him to do his box-to-box role to mitigate opposition counter attack.
Sarri on the other hand wants his possession based philosophy to be dictated by a Regista/Deep lying play maker instead of a pure defensive midfielder.
With the philosophy implementation at a pre-mature stage in this first season, every instance of lost possession triggers an opposition counter attack. Jorginho with all his technical passing ability, struggles to contain opposition counter attacks. Failure to contain counter attacks does not give defensive stability to the team. Above all, the ability of a Regista is to control the tempo of Chelsea’s play, but he has often been man marked out of the game by many oppositions and unable to do this.
Problem 2 – Non-Negotiable Tactics vs. Non-Flexible Players
Sarriball is a non-negotiable philosophy which is always based on creating maximum goal scoring opportunities. It will never involve game management to see out a game at 1-0 or 2-1 with park the bus tactics.
Since, effectiveness of the system is completely dependent on out-scoring the opponent, Chelsea struggle against teams who keep a low block and over crowd the central area of their box. Opposition teams often suffocate Chelsea penetration centrally and force the majority of passing movements laterally. Chelsea possession may be as high as 70%, but effective goal scoring opportunities are reduced.
Opposition teams often feed on the misplaced passes of Chelsea in build up play and hit them on the counter attack. Plenty of results this season have seen Chelsea dominate
possession but end up losing 1-0 or drawing match 0-0 against run of play.
Chelsea have physical players more seasoned and professional at playing the direct counter attacking football. They had their majority of success playing pure counter attacking/long ball football under the greats of Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and even Antonio Conte in the early stages.
Sarriball requires more cut backs and square passes from wingers to maximise goal scoring opportunities (as Man City’s wingers and full backs do). With counter attacking style of play being more prominent at Chelsea in the past, Chelsea wingers by their natural instinct, will run with the ball more instead of releasing it with one-touch passing in the style demanded by Sarri.
Chelsea strikers also station their movements in an around the box expecting a
cross. Chelsea wingers often stray out too wide to deliver a cross or come inside to take a long range shot, but never concentrate on the interchange of play with the midfielders and attackers.
Sarri’s belief is to transform the mentality of senior players in playing a one-touch tactical total football system. Nevertheless, success so prominent in the past with counter attacking football, expecting flexibility from senior players at this latter stage of their careers is a hypothetical requirement.
Sarri himself having not won accolades as trophies to show for, also contributes in players showing resistance in adapting to Sarriball. Even the movements without the ball are not aligned to the demand of executing the philosophy. Instead of blocking passing channels or zones of opposition, Chelsea defence concentrates only on blocking the player.
Problem 3 – Failure to Control opposition counter attacks
In the past, Chelsea full backs and centre backs had always been asked to keep their line of press restrained and maintain a good defensive line. Such a low line of pressing keeps the team safe against opposition counter attacks as you have enough numbers back defending.
Sarriball has compelled the centre backs to spread out and build the play from back. The full backs also have to contribute with up and down overlapping energy to be in synchronisation with the wingers. With Chelsea full backs more suited to counter attacking football, every committed overlap with the wingers expose Chelsea to counter attacks, in instances of lost possession. The first instinct of a Chelsea full back is to put in a cross rather than do an accurate interchange of passes with the wingers or strikers.
Chelsea full backs with their low energy profile are struggling to cover back the ground when a counter attack starts. 50% of goals conceded by Chelsea this season are as a result of poor synchronisation between the wingers and full backs who are already committed in attack. Fear of counter attacks forces a Chelsea full backs to only make safe passes laterally, but never attempt a penetrating pass through middle of pitch.
Chelsea midfielders try to press opposition higher up the pitch and often lose possession in the counter press, and the distance maintained between the line of Defence and the midfield is quite larger in Sarriball than a normal counter attacking team. This distance often gives opposition runners uncontested time and space to build counter attacks.
Problem 4 – Affinity for Zonal Marking on set pieces
It is often said in football that spaces do not score goals, it is the human occupying those spaces who score. Sarri’s affinity for Zonal marking on set pieces has given a vicious opening to opposition team to score goals against Chelsea against the run of play.
If 50% of goals conceded by Chelsea this season are on counter attacks, the balance 50 comprises of goals conceded on set pieces. Opposition having aerial advantage always makes their first man free to do a take down header in box, putting the second ball in a dangerous crowded area.
Chelsea in past were one of the best man-to-man marking teams and this change of marking methods is not yielding desired results.
Conclusive Evidence And Summary:
Conclusive evidence shows that it may not be necessary for Sarri to buy 6-7 new players to implement his style. Addition of 2-3 quality players from outside and investing more time in young and talented players on loan or in the Academy, can create a balanced side. A young player will be more hungry and flexible enough to execute the system more efficiently than a senior player who has past his prime.
Maximum concentration has to be made by Chelsea wingers/full backs on smart and accurate cutbacks from the by-line, to the edge of the box where players are free for a shot or tap-ins.
The line of press can be further reduced by 10-12 meters to keep the gap between the midfield and defence less. This arrangement can be followed until the system is matured in the second or third season, that’s if he still remains Chelsea coach. Zonal marking must be mixed with man-to-man marking for defending set-pieces. Drastic improvement is required in maximising the set-pieces that Chelsea get. Goals from set pieces have reduced this season. It can be an alternative outlet to goals when bus is parked.
When teams maintain a low block, Chelsea must encourage midfielders to shoot from long range as Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne did plenty for Man City last year. It can serve as a a good outlet to goals when the bus is parked.