Three of Chelsea’s six league titles have come in their first season under a new manager, which is a feather in the cap for the club’s HR department and explains why hopes were high this season when they went unbeaten in their first 12 matches.
Maurizio Sarri is the first Premier League coach to avoid defeat in his opening dozen matches yet they head into Saturday’s home game with Manchester City 10 points adrift of the reigning champions.
Pep Guardiola is attempting to win his ninth league title in his 11th season as a top-flight manager but even he couldn’t win the Premier League in his first season with City.
If the modern breed of super-managers is defined by specific stylistic approaches then frankly it makes sense that they can’t just bowl into a new club, click their fingers and expect the players to adapt immediately. We’ve come a long way since Bruce Rioch’s blueprint when he was appointed Arsenal manager in 1995: short hair, don’t be late, wear a tie, be polite and get married.
Even so, it only took the Manchester City players a year of adaption under Guardiola before they began to exert the sort of full-spectrum dominance enjoyed by Juventus in Serie A, the very team who repeatedly prevented Sarri from landing the league title with Napoli. He ended his three years there with the best points-per-game rate of any Napoli manager in Serie A history (2.27) but this was only enough for two second places and a third.
There is a well-documented amount of mutual respect between Sarri and Guardiola but the former must know that his good start at Stamford Bridge has not reduced the size of the challenge he faces.
The underlying numbers of both clubs support the case that Guardiola is approaching footballing nirvana at City while Chelsea are still adjusting to their new manager’s demands.
Using Opta’s sequences model we can see that they are the only two teams this season to record more than 300 possession sequences of 10 or more passes, considerably more than the other teams in the “big six”.
But while a third of City’s have ended in a shot or a touch in the penalty area (defined as a build-up attack), only 18% of Chelsea’s have, not only a lower proportion than City, but also Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham as well.
In simple terms, City’s domination of the ball offers epoch-defining penetration, while Chelsea are on the ball a lot, but too often without much end product.
|Team||10+ pass sequences||Sequences ending with touch in box|
|Correct as of 3 December|
Debate about Chelsea’s current approach caught fire after they were outclassed by Tottenham at Wembley in matchweek 13, with Sarri’s subsequent criticism of N’Golo Kante dominating headlines.
Chelsea’s new manager has installed his own Neopolitan operating system in midfield in the form of Jorginho, which has pushed Kante out to the right, as evidenced in the map below.
The former Leicester man has seen a bump in the number of touches per 90 minutes he is making on the right flank but has dropped by 12.4 in his own half.
Once master of the defensive half, Kante is now running a new business elsewhere that may not be entirely suitable, despite a pair of assists that matches the combined total from his first two seasons at the club.
For his part, Jorginho has already recorded the third and fourth highest number of successful passes ever made in a Premier League game (behind two Guardiola players from last season, which partly explains why he was so pained that the Italy international chose Stamford Bridge over Etihad Stadium in the summer) but without a cutting edge Jorginho’s work will go unrewarded.
Even worse, if pressed effectively – as Dele Alli did for Tottenham last month – Jorginho can effectively become a weak link, the dynamo in a wheel that won’t turn. [Incidentally, more players have recorded 100 or more successful passes in a single game in 2018-19 than all Premier League campaigns between 2003-04 and 2010-11 combined].
|Most successful passes in a Premier League game|
|04/03/18||Ilkay Gündogan (Man City)||Chelsea||167|
|31/03/18||Fernandinho (Man City)||Everton||164|
|23/09/18||Jorginho (Chelsea)||West Ham United||162|
|26/08/18||Jorginho (Chelsea)||Newcastle United||158|
Ultimately, football philosophy can only be reflected on at leisure if that team is scoring enough goals and in Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, Sarri has a pair of strikers who have scored a combined six times from 54 shots, while Eden Hazard has not scored in the league since the start of October, a relative drought his expected goals overperformance had hinted was in the post.
Guardiola, in contrast has both Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling on eight goals already, and though he inherited those two, just as Sarri has Morata and Giroud, the difference is obvious.
Dries Mertens scored 46 league goals in Sarri’s final two seasons at Napoli and finding or buying someone who can replicate this threat is the next big task in Sarri’s inbox.