That might appear to be an odd sentiment to throw at Chelsea, given they have won two of the last four Premier League titles, but if last season taught us anything, it’s that Pep Guardiola’s possession-heavy, attack-from-all-angles Manchester City side will not be dethroned easily. Chelsea’s titles were built upon defensive solidity, first via José Mourinho then Antonio Conte, and thrilling football took a back seat. With this summer’s hiring of Maurizio Sarri and his own possession-heavy, attack-from-all-angles philosophy, Chelsea have committed to change. They now look to join City (and Tottenham and Liverpool) in smothering their opposition with ball retention and creating the expectation that flair will then come to the fore.
Ahead of Saturday’s match against Arsenal, there is potentially a lot to like about Sarri’s arrival from a neutral perspective. During his time at Napoli, he made them into one of Europe’s most entertaining sides. Even though Chelsea have played only the preseason curtain raiser Community Shield (they lost, 2-0 to City) and one match against Huddersfield Town (they won 3-0), his style is already permeating their play:
A look at the Chelsea sequence vs Arsenal leading up to the penalty. Continued great implementation of combinations & concepts that create space behind to be exploited; Hudson-Odoi seeming like an excellent player for this purpose. #Chelsea #Sarri pic.twitter.com/39NTBz3gh4— coachdogge (@coachdogge) August 1, 2018
There’s even the trademark Sarri kickoff. In a play reminiscent more of the NFL than the Premier League, Chelsea kicked off the Huddersfield match with eight players lined up on the halfway line, center back Antonio Rüdiger acting as a nominal holder to stop the back-pass dead, and his partner David Luiz kicking long, with a view to challenging the ball and recovering the subsequent play down field.
Beyond kooky kickoff strategies, Chelsea have also come full circle on the three-center-back system—so successfully deployed by Conte in 2016-17 that half the league chose to mimic it a year later—and moved again to a back four. This means that César Azpilicueta is no longer a right center back—he’s a right back again. Marcos Alonso isn’t a rampaging left wing back—he’s more of a rampaging standard left back. And with the pass-proficient Luiz back in favor, the center back position for Chelsea is now about more than just defending.
Sarri still has plenty of choices to make, though. After reinventing himself from a fringe winger to a starting wingback, will Victor Moses get any minutes as a right back, with Davide Zappacosta also in the running for a slot there, or will he need to reinvent himself again as a winger? Can aging center back Gary Cahill get pitch time with Luiz, Rüdiger, and Andreas Christensen all ahead of him in the pecking order? Is Emerson, so promising at Roma a year or so back, or Alonso the better choice at left back? How on earth can Danny Drinkwater get anywhere near a midfield three when Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté, Mateo Kovacic probably start and Ross Barkley and Cesc Fàbregas, and probably even Ruben Loftus-Cheek, rotate in ahead of him?
That midfield seems like where Chelsea’s season will rise or fall. The Huddersfield game confirmed two things: that 4-3-3 is the formation, and that Jorginho will play in the center of the midfield three. Maybe that was no surprise, given it was the same role he inhabited for the same manager at Napoli, but it does pose an interesting question around Kanté. While Kanté’s widely regarded as the foremost defense-oriented defensive midfielder in the game, this team doesn’t really have that role anymore, with Sarri opting for a passer in that position instead. Against Huddersfield, Kanté played significantly higher up the field than usual and to the right of Jorginho. He showed great willingness to push up, but that’s not really his game; he’s best when he’s covering sideline to sideline, stopping attacks in front of the back line. Now, Kanté has the natural engine to fulfill a box-to-box role, but we have no idea if his passing can hold up under the pressure he’ll face higher up the field. When Chelsea have such options as the talented Kovacic, a natural ball carrier in Barkley, or an elite attacking passer such as Fàbregas, it raises even more questions about employing Kanté in an advanced role. Getting the midfield balance right could be Sarri’s biggest challenge.
Elsewhere, the wide forward positions have the obvious class of Eden Hazard, Willian, Pedro, and even the promise of 17-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi, while Álvaro Morata gets his chance to prove a near-barren 2018 to be a blip rather than anything permanent. Olivier Giroud, now a World Cup winner, and 20-year-old Tammy Abraham, still developing but back from a Premier League loan at Swansea, offer depth options too.
The one position that appears clearly defined is goalkeeper. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s arrival felt like a bolt out of the blue—even though Chelsea needed to replace Thibaut Courtois quickly after selling him to Real Madrid. During owner Roman Abramovich’s long reign, the club have generally looked long term with goalkeepers— first Petr Cech, then Courtois, and now the 23-year-old Kepa. The £72 million fee was a world record for a keeper and it’s hard to make a positive statistical case that he is of the class of his predecessors. With really only Willy Caballero as backup, Kepa will have to prove his worth quickly.
Somehow, almost despite a heavy defensive outlook across the last five seasons of Mourinho and Conte, Chelsea have stockpiled talented senior players across the pitch, especially recently. Sarri has a lot of questions to answer, but only because he has so many options. This depth has been built largely during the last three transfer windows--just over a year in real terms--in which they have bought 10 players for a minimum of £15 million and a total sum of around £350 million.
Ironically, Chelsea perhaps don’t need such depth right now, with the Europa League likely deemed an inferior stand-in for a preferred Champions League place. Success in the Premier League and at a minimum getting back to the top four must be where any bonuses in Sarri’s contract are oriented toward. What we are likely to see is expansive, entertaining football, and if it all clicks quickly--which, given the talent available, it could--Chelsea may end up leading the chase behind Manchester City, or perhaps Liverpool.
The Premier League’s top six has just seen one of its traditional defensive giants flip their entire strategy toward attack. For anyone following along, that simply has to be a good thing.