There was a lot to like about Chelsea’s thrilling 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, but also more than enough defensive lapses to generate concern about the team’s setup.
A lot of this talk is aided by the persistent narrative in England that Maurizio Sarri is consumed by an uncompromising attacking philosophy, and that defence is an afterthought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the ?Premier League-centric nature of the majority of our pundits, this grossly neglects much of the work done by the 59-year-old in his native land.
Back home, the Italian is well renowned for his defensive drills, infamously pioneering the use of drones at Empoli (and then ?Napoli) in order to better instill his principles of how a back four should shape up. For all the prowess of his teams going forward, they are usually built around a domineering centre back.
His tenure at Empoli was the first time his unique brand of football garnered widespread acclaim, and yet it was the loan addition of ?Juventus’ Daniele Rugani that enabled Sarri to haul the Florentine side to promotion against the odds. This central defensive focal point was replicated with Kalidou Koulibaly in Naples.
Of course, it is no coincidence that both those players were coveted by the Blues this season. Of his current crop in west London, it’s undeniable that at first glance there seems no bonafide heir apparent to this model.
Despite the criticism, by delving further into the cumulative qualities of the centre backs available, the potential for success is there. David Luiz’s expected re-invigoration under the former banker has come to fruition, and despite his customary concentration lapses, the Brazilian’s ball-playing abilities under pressure have been crucial to ?Chelsea’s start to life under Sarri.
Similar things could be said of Antonio Rudiger, though the German’s defensive instincts are considerably less attuned. Meanwhile, Andreas Christensen appears the most naturally gifted defensively, though his confidence has taken a dip since that mistake against ?Barcelona, and the nature of that error may be why he is yet to appear competitively under the current regime.
It is in these two players that Sarri will have the most work to do, but undoubtedly also where he will see the greatest upside. Their issues are evidently deeply contrasting, yet luckily for them, both exist in areas in which the coach excels in teaching – providing players with the confidence to play the ball with intent as well as relentlessly drilling them into collective shape.
Having said all of this, it would be false to imply that Sarri’s defensive system rests solely on his centre backs. Indeed, if you were to watch some of the 27 drone drills designed by himself and his technical coach – Francesco Calzona, who has been with him since his days at Alessandria in 2010 – you would observe the importance of the full backs.
The majority of these involve the right or left back closely pressing the attacker, while the remaining three from the rearguard pack the box to limit space and goalscoring opportunities. Unfortunately, this was not effective against ?Arsenal. Time and again the Gunners found far too much space down the flanks, and equally as much room once they got into the box. Were it not for their profligacy, Unai Emery’s side could easily have won the game thanks to this.
Much of this was down to the work (or lack of) of supposed man of the match Marcos Alonso. True, the Spaniard was typically impactful going forward, but his ability to play in a back four – especially of this nature – remains highly questionable. He was continually found wanting in his tracking back and closing down of Hector Bellerin and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Fortunately for the 27-year-old, his overall influence on the scoreline outweighed his opponents’ this time, but the warning signs are there for more seasoned teams to exploit. To be fair, his cause was not helped by Ross Barkley’s ineptitude for all things defensive. His awareness of runners and space is non-existent, forcing Jorginho to cover in places he shouldn’t have to, subsequently shunting the whole balance of the team.
The introduction of Mateo Kovacic offered some heavenly light at the end of the tunnel. Not only did he exude confidence on the ball – completing all 43 passes he attempted – he also plugged the holes that Barkley was vacating, quelling Arsenal’s threat significantly in the second half.
Ironically, the man who has so far been left out of this conversation is the same man who has been synonymous with the club’s defensive efforts in the last two seasons. Much has been said of N’Golo Kante’s new role – some of it ?exulting, some of it questioning. His impact up the pitch has so far been hard to argue with – against the North London outfit he topped his side’s charts for chances created (four) and touches in the opposition box (five), yet some say his overall influence has waned.
Change can be hard to accept sometimes, and obviously it will be a shame to miss out on some of his trademark last-ditch interceptions. However, the intimation that his defensive role within the team has now diminished is incorrect. His downfall on Saturday was predominantly down to a lack of acclimatisation to his new surroundings – at times he was caught in between his former and current role, unaware of whether to press high or drop deep.
Being one of the most adept readers of the game around, as the training ground sessions and matches rack up it’s hard to imagine him failing to recapture the endearingly disruptive nature of his game further up the field.
For now, Chelsea fans should revel in the newfound thrill factor that the incumbent tactician has brought to west London, whilst remaining calm in the knowledge that the defensive shape will sharpen up, in more ways than one.