The changing impact of the Chelsea midfield under Sarri

We always talk about changing ways in which a team play their game when there is a switch in manager. This was not really the case when Chelsea replaced Jose Mourinho with Antonio Conte. The Italian was akin to the Portuguese in a way that defence-first was the order of the day for both. It rather agitated the Blues’ fans as teams began to work that tactic out, and the football became boring.

So making a progress in the style of play was in need before the start of this season. The board responded by hiring ex-Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri. A banker by trade, Sarri did not play football professionally. He took part in amateur games as a central defender and coached a few youth teams while performing his day job.

From Empoli to Naples, the 59-year-old created his reputation as an attack-minded coach. It was contrasting to what we generally hear about Italian born coaches, who put emphasis on being defensively solid.

Sarri’s philosophy mirrors high-intensity football with passing patterns and pressing of the highest order. A high-line defence and a narrow front-line to create space for fullbacks are the key denotations. The midfield is something which should be closely looked at, especially when we compare his system to that of Conte at Chelsea.

Contrasting three man midfields

The former Napoli boss deploys an orthodox 4-3-3 formation consisting of two attack-minded fullbacks, three combative midfielders with passing incisiveness, and a flexible front-line. Juxtaposing how the midfield functions is very interesting and very contrasting to what Stamford Bridge witnessed in the past few seasons.

Conte’s shape switched between 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-1-1. Both formations have similar defensive shape but contrasting midfield configuration. The former embodied two sitting players in the centre of the park, with N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas predominantly forming that partnership.

The latter had a shape of three players very similar to what the midfield in a 4-3-3 looks like. However, with how Conte likes to play, the action points of midfielders are chiefly in their own half before stressing on attacking the opposition half. He preferred the 3-4-2-1 formation, which won him the Premier League in 2017.

Sarri’s midfield three functions quite differently in this aspect. He prefers his team to press high from the front and also keep a high defensive line. It allows the midfield to be closer to the forward line, enabling the team to be compact and leave no space in between the lines.

Chelsea played Arsenal very early this season at Stamford Bridge and the same was the case last year as well. We will take a look at how the midfields of the home side operated in those two games under different managers.

In the above two images, we see the actions points of Fabregas and Kante, the central midfielders for Chelsea, during the Arsenal game last year. Fabregas was supposed to have a free role alongside the Frenchman, because he possesses the qualities to be an influential player in attacking build-ups.

But the way his action points were deep and recovering balls from his own half most of the time, depicted how the manager wanted him to be disciplined rather than ambitious. Kante was playing his usual defensive midfield role, making interceptions in his own half.

Jorginho is Sarri’s general

Now, if we take a look at Jorginho’s impact in the game from this season, a clear contradiction can be made. The Italian is a part of a midfield which is higher up the pitch concentrating on playing front-foot football, rather than focusing on defending first.

He made five ball recovery actions in the opposition half, epitomising the manager’s system of being assertive and compact close to the front-line in every aspect of the game.

Kante has been given a much more advanced role under Sarri, and the Frenchman can be clearly seen affecting the game in the final third. He even had three pops at goal from inside the box, signalling to what the manager wants from his wide midfielders – support the front players.

Ross Barkley was playing that game too and he was very effective in the final third, recovering the ball higher up the pitch.

In overall terms, there is a considerable difference in how Sarri and Conte approach their game. We always point towards a midfield being the most important cog in the team’s wheel. And comparing the actions of players against same opponents under different managers, we can why Chelsea are a changed team this season.