Here we are starting a new Premier League season with great tactical ideas coming from the best managers on earth. And if Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino reigned before, there’s a new knight on Queensland. He’s Chelsea’s new manager, and he speaks with his hands.
For me it’ll be a pleasure to follow Italian coach Maurizio Sarri’s work at Stamford Bridge and bring it to you here on Twelve Football, using these amazing tools and producing some thoughts about tactics and analytics.
Sarri marks a significant shift in tactical strategy for Chelsea following 14 years of reactive counter-attacking football instigated by Jose Mourinho way back in 2004. It became a Blues tradition to hire coaches with principles of conservatism, with Andres Villas-Boas the notable exception.
From Rafa Benitez to Luis Felipe Scolari, from Mourinho’s second term to Antonio Conte, Chelsea had always preferred not to propose the match, but to suffer without controlling the ball. That’s coming to an end now.
Tactical differences from last season
The biggest change to Chelsea’s system will be Sarri shifting the defensive line to a back four. Victor Moses will be tasked with being deployed as a winger, with Cesar Azpilicueta taking on full-back duties, while Marcos Alonso and Davide Zappacosta will need to have their positions re-jigged too.
Spanish defender Azpilicueta was the best player of the Blues last season, according to Twelve’s data. He scored 53,002 points in 3,491 minutes played, at an average of 15.2 points per minute. Good offensive passes, chances created and a few goals all highlighted his work.
After him, Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kanté and Cesc Fabregas made the top four last season. Off ball, Frenchman Kanté was the second best on the team. He averaged 2.4 points per minute on closing pass lines and pressing the ball.
There was unanimity during the World Cup that Kante was one of the most important players in France’s victorious campaign. He scored 2,045 points for pressing in 623 minutes, lifting his average to 3.3 points per minute. The unforgettable work by Kanté is expected to continue under Sarri’s management.
The Frenchman is likely to be used in advance of Jorginho, in a wider box-to-box role. He has the engine to perform those duties and is accustomed to shifting wide to break up attacks. But his screening in front of the defence may be a big miss during the season.
Don’t be sorry to have the ball, Chelsea!
In possession, Chelsea should play in a 4-3-3 formation with a playful attitude – looking to build out from the goalkeeper even under intense pressure – slipping passes past the pressing runs of opponents and playing low passes into the striker for combinations. High pressing and building out from the goalkeeper are common qualities in a Sarri team, and it will be exciting to see how the team develops.
Everybody is talking about Jorginho – Sarri’s alter ego – but one key player to Chelsea’s new play model is Cesc Fabregas. Built in La Masia, Cesc was the Blues’ best performer with the ball last season. He scored 29,259 points in 2,414 minutes played, or 12.1 points per minute. To break the lines with passes and dribbles and to create good chances? There’s no better player at Chelsea. Cesc will fit in the team like a glove on Sarri’s hand.
“Sarriball” features short and quick passes designed to move play as far up the pitch as quickly as possible. The new Chelsea boss builds upon this method through pushing the ball out from his back-line, and depends heavily on his defenders holding possession to begin the first instance of attacking threat.
For that, there’s space for young Callum Hudson-Odoi to gain minutes and for the vertical speed of Willian in attack. Looking at Twelve’s shots dashboard below, we can see how the Brazilian striker shoots from everywhere. He averaged 4.6 points per minute from his goal attempts.
Where’s the match preview?
Well, I wouldn’t write about the match against Huddersfield without projecting what we can expect from Sarri’s ideas first. Of course it’s a match to be won, since Huddersfield had dreadful underlying statistics in 2017/18. Based on the expected goal data, the Terriers should’ve been relegated along with Stoke and Swansea, as they deserved to win just six matches.
Although Huddersfield scored home and away against Chelsea last season, they were still the joint-lowest scorers in the Premier League, and the lowest on expected goals. The Terriers’ lack of firepower meant they featured in the fewest top flight games where both teams scored in 2017/18, as both they and their opponents found the net in just 12 matches.
Midfielder Aaron Mooy was their best performer last season, and the third best Australian player at the World Cup. In the league he scored an average of 16.6 points per minute, and in Russia 13.2.
Chelsea should dominate the ball and the timing of the match, while Huddersfield will try to control the spaces closing their lines and not allowing Jorginho, Hazard and Cesc to implement their ideas.
For sure, it will be a great match to watch and a good opener to the Premier League season. It’s intriguing to ponder how fast these players will understand the “Sarrism” and it’s significance. A true revolution on Chelsea’s DNA and football culture. And nobody should feel sorry to change either!