As “Sarriball” comes to the Premier League, here’s how Chelsea’s new manager Maurizio Sarri is saving beautiful football one feverish attack at a time
When Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly scored a game-winning header in the 90th minute at Juventus Stadium last April, Napoli finally seemed poised to do the unthinkable: Win the Serie A title.
Even though Juventus had won the last six league titles, Napoli and their enigmatic manager Maurizio Sarri were now just one point shy of the league leaders with four games to go and had just dominated the Italian champions. Sarri’s team — buzzing around the pitch with their trademark Neapolitan pressure — had so dominated Paulo Dybala and company that Juventus did not manage to take a single shot on goal all game. After the match, as Massimiliano Allegri was getting criticized for another poor performance, Sarri was again being celebrated for the overwhelming beauty of his team’s football.
But this is modern football, a cruel game where money trumps beauty. Juventus’s much deeper roster ended up making the difference – again – and Allegri was able to hoist the side’s seventh consecutive Serie A title. Napoli, which finished its season with 91 points, had to settle for the mere consolation of “best runners-up in Serie A history.”
To the football world, however, Sarri was the real champion. Over his three years at Napoli, Sarri built an almost perfect football machine. His team overwhelmed the rest of Serie A with physical power and mental toughness, implementing a brand of football that the Italian league has rarely seen in its history. Instead of adopting the Italian traditional defensive principles, Sarri advocated for a modern, proactive football. Shaping his players’ mindset with the philosophy of using possession to dominate the opponent from the kickoff to the final whistle, he turned Napoli into such a beautiful team to watch that the best managers around Europe could not help but compliment their colleague’s work.
“They are maybe the best team I’ve ever faced,” said Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after he battled Napoli in the Champions League group stage last season. “I am in love with Napoli.”
And now the 59 year-old former banker is in London despite having never won anything at the highest levels of European football. It’s not his victories that attracted Chelsea’s enigmatic owner Roman Abramovich, but instead it’s the way Sarri’s teams have played that has him on the touchline at Stamford Bridge.
The question now is whether Sarri can bring what worked so well at Napoli into the cutthroat waters of the Premier League. He is still somewhat unproven in the top-notch football world, and the lack of international experience could be a burden in the most competitive league’s exacting season.
The reason Sarri has not managed a major club yet is simple: For most of his life, he was busy doing something else for a living. As he often points out with a cross tone, in Italy many people still call him the impiegato (“employee,” literally) because of his former job as a banker at Monte dei Paschi di Siena, one of the world’s oldest financial institutions. “As if it was a crime to have had a normal job,” he quipped one time to the Repubblica newspaper.
When he began coaching in 1990, Sarri’s days were split in two. By morning he endured his desk job, and by night his passion for football consumed him. Sarri’s rise through the ranks of amateur and professional leagues was slow, spending many years in Serie B and C floating between positive results and frequent sackings. In fact, the manager’s breakthrough did not occur until 2014, when he brought Empoli to Serie A.
Here, Sarri surprised everyone by applying a fearless and offensive game plan that the league was not used to seeing in low-ranking teams. It did not matter where or against whom — Sarri’s Empoli would always play its brand of football.
Sarri’s philosophy, sometimes called “Sarrismo” or “Sarriball,” is an alternative version of the Guardiolan tiki taka. Sarri’s teams play with a stronger emphasis on moving the ball forward as fast as possible instead of circulating it laterally. For the way he has implemented total football in Serie A, Sarri has been compared to legendary manager Arrigo Sacchi. A promoter of aggressive football, Sacchi was the first Serie A coach responsible for benching the traditional Italian defensive strategies in favor of a more entertaining, proactive game based on the possession of the ball and dominance of the opponent.
The statistics from this past season show that Sarri forced his men to build play from the back line out. Napoli’s possession averaged 60.3 percent, only six points fewer than the ball-control dominant Manchester City. What is more, Napoli had as many shots per game as Man City (17.3 and 17.5) though they scored 29 goals fewer than the Citizens (77 versus 106).
Napoli’s poor finishing to expected goals ratio could be attributed to the lack of valuable strikers Sarri was afforded at Napoli. The Neapolitan manager was often put in the difficult position of getting by with what he had while having to compete with giant Juventus for the title. This fact was especially evident after the 2016 selling of striker Gonzalo Higuaín, a move that left Napoli without a forward physically able to do the grueling dirty work Sarri demanded.
It was from this adversity that Sarri’s deep understanding of the game emerged, as he saw in Dries Mertens the perfect fit for the forward role. Through adjustments to his position and movements, the minute 5’7” Belgian became the goal scorer that Napoli had been desperately seeking, netting 46 goals in the last two seasons.
Though Sarri’s teams are known for their ruthless attack, he remains Italian with his concern for defense. Sarri uses drones during practice to monitor the movement of his players, wanting to ensure that his team’s spacing does not allow the opposition any channels to attack.
The most important concept of Sarri’s 4-3-3 defensive phase is the immediate counter pressing when possession is lost. In doing so, Sarri keeps his backline very high up the field in order to allow his defenders to have little ground to cover when a pressing situation presents itself. As the pressing is triggered, all ten men jump on the opponents very quickly, thus leaving them with no solution but to hit a long ball. The result of this aggressive attitude along with his maniacal attention to detail earned Napoli the third best defense in the league, conceding only 29 goals last season.
Chelsea fans know that Sarri has won nothing in his coaching career and do not miss a chance to remind him of it. The hashtag #SarriOut has already spread on Twitter after last Sunday’s Community Shield loss against Manchester City. They insist that at Chelsea, unlike Napoli, there is little to no time for the development of the team: the fans want to win now.
However, midfielder Ross Barkley is of a different mind. He promised that Sarri’s philosophy is going to bear fruit soon. “If you look back to now in three months, you’ll see a big difference,” he said in an interview to Sky Sports.
Unfortunately for Sarri, Chelsea’s owner and fans are not known for being as patient. This time, “Sarriball” is going to have to work right from the beginning, from Saturday precisely, when Chelsea face Huddersfield Town in their first Premier League match of the year. Despite the doubt, the banker from Naples has more than enough skill to prove to the world that he belongs beside Guardiola and Sacchi as one of the world’s best managers.