Amid all the big-money moves for players during this summer’s transfer window, the appointment of a chain-smoking former banker to a Premier League managerial role could be more significant to the English top tier and Fantasy managers than any of them.
As one venerated Italian coach in the form of Antonio Conte departed the Chelsea hot seat, another was swiftly appointed in his stead.
Maurizio Sarri has signed a three-year deal with the Blues after leaving Napoli, where he had enjoyed three seasons of relative success – albeit without winning any silverware – and established himself as one of the most sought-after coaches in the world.
Nicknamed “Mister 33” during his time at Sansovino after apparently preparing 33 different set-piece routines for use in a match, Sarri has a reputation for being a workaholic and paying close attention to the finest details in his pre-game preparations.
Sarri’s appointment is hugely intriguing for both Chelsea supporters and Fantasy Premier League bosses alike, given Napoli’s form during his tenure at the Italian club.
The 94 goals scored in 2016/17 was the most the Naples club have ever registered in a single season, while the 29 goals Gli Azzurri conceded in the campaign just gone was the fewest Napoli have shipped in Serie A in almost 30 years.
Upon his unveiling as Chelsea boss, Sarri told the club’s official website:
I hope we can provide some entertaining football for our fans, and that we will be competing for trophies at the end of the season, which is what this club deserves.
Club director Marina Granovskaia said of Sarri’s appointment:
We are delighted to welcome Maurizio and are looking forward to him bringing his football philosophy to Chelsea. Maurizio’s Napoli side played some of the most exciting football in Europe, impressing with their attacking approach and dynamism, and his coaching methods significantly improved the players at his disposal.
The last sentence of that quote from Granovskaia might stick in the throats of Chelsea fans who are hoping for sizeable investment in the squad and suggests, perhaps, that Sarri is expected to chiefly work with the players already on the west London club’s books – a transfer policy that particularly irked Conte in his second season with the Blues.
The £50m+ signing of Jorginho, however, is a significant move. The Brazil-born Italy international was integral to Sarri’s tactical approach at Napoli and his capture would appear to be a concession by the Chelsea board to their new manager’s demands.
Jorginho’s move to Chelsea is noteworthy for another reason. Sarri is, for better or worse, known for his tactical rigidity and almost exclusively employed a 4-3-3 in his entire three-year spell with Napoli. Jorginho’s metronomic role at the base of the three-man midfield was essential to Sarri’s gameplan and that the 26-year-old defensive midfielder was snapped up by Chelsea almost simultaneously with the veteran coach suggests that Sarri intends to implement the same tactical approach with his new troops.
While this offensive 4-3-3 shape could be a boon for many of Chelsea’s Fantasy assets, there will be concern about how this set-up affects the likes of Victor Moses and – especially – Marcos Alonso, whose appeal was well-defined in Conte’s wing-back system.
Uncertainty over a number of Blues’ players’ futures (including Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois) and the fact that Sarri has under a month to prepare his new squad (13 of whom were involved in the World Cup this summer) for the coming season means that there is still sufficient doubt over whether any Chelsea player is “essential” for Gameweek 1, even accounting for their appealing early fixtures in the first six weeks.
Where Sarri could be the Fantasy manager’s friend this season is in his team selection. The former Empoli boss is averse to widespread rotation and a remarkable ten of his first-choice starting XI at Napoli played at least 30 Serie A matches last season. Were it not for a knee injury suffered by left-back Faouzi Ghoulam in early November, that figure could have been even higher.
That Chelsea won’t participate in next season’s UEFA Champions League would surely only further minimise the threat of rotation.
With the transfer window closing earlier this year and indeed before the Premier League season has kicked off, we could, therefore, know from a very early stage how Chelsea will regularly line up this coming campaign. The late return of more than a dozen of Sarri’s squad from Russia will complicate matters, but the hope from a Fantasy perspective is that the Blues will hit the ground running and Sarri’s starting XI can become a reliable, point-scoring pool of talent to call on.
A no-nonsense defender, Sarri’s playing career was, rather like Jose Mourinho’s, somewhat unspectacular. Unable to progress beyond non-league level, Sarri took up employment as a foreign currency trader to supplement his income and was still working in the financial sector when his managerial career began.
Indeed, Sarri combined coaching with his nine-to-five job for over a decade, taking charge of various Tuscan village teams before his first notable role with AC Sansovino in 2000.
Success at a regional level with Sansovino and then experience with Sangiovannese in Serie C led second-tier club Pescara to take a chance on the-then relatively unknown Sarri and it was in Serie B that the new Chelsea manager would remain for several years, subsequently taking charge of Arezzo (where Sarri, coincidentally, succeeded Conte), Perugia and Grosseto. Never staying at one club for more than a single season and unable to fully implement his footballing philosophy under a succession of short-termist owners, Sarri also had caretaker spells at Avellino and Verona as he roamed from club to club.
Dropping down to Serie C with Allessandria and Sorrento, Sarri’s attacking brand of football caught the eye of Empoli in 2012, and it was with the Serie B club that Sarri’s managerial career was to ignite.
Taking a team that narrowly avoided relegation the previous season to a fourth-placed finish and a promotion play-off final with Livorno (which Empoli lost) in 2012/13, Sarri was to guide his side to automatic promotion to Serie A the very next season.
Having settled on a 4-3-1-2 formation very early on in his tenure at Empoli, Sarri (much like he subsequently did at Napoli) stuck with that set-up for the remainder of his three years with the Tuscan club and indeed into his debut season in Serie A.
Empoli comfortably avoided relegation back to the second tier (never falling into the drop zone after Gameweek 4) and the attacking swagger that Sarri’s side exhibited in their 4-2 win over Napoli towards the end of the 2014/15 season made an impression on his future employers.
Sarri was appointed boss of the Neapolitan giants seven weeks later in place of Rafael Benitez, who was dismissed for what was perceived to be an overly negative tactical approach en route to finishing fifth in Serie A.
In his three seasons with Napoli, Sarri took the club to second, third and second-place finishes in the league, coming close to breaking Juventus’ seven-year dominance over the rest of Serie A in his final campaign.
While Napoli’s goal-scoring record (251 league goals in three seasons) during Sarri’s reign was the best in the club’s history, it should be noted that the Sacchi disciple also improved on Benitez’s defensive record: Sarri’s side conceded only 29 goals in 2017/18, almost half as many as Napoli shipped (54) in Benitez’s final season in Italy.
Napoli registered at least 12 clean sheets in each of Sarri’s three seasons with the club and indeed kept 19 shut-outs in the season just gone. Intriguingly, 12 of last season’s clean sheets were recorded on the road.
These are exciting times for both Chelsea fans and Fantasy managers. Not since, perhaps, Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City two years has a Premier League managerial appointment been such feverishly anticipated.
The hopes and expectations are, first and foremost, for goals and lots of them. No Serie A side has scored more goals than Napoli since the summer of 2015 and that total of 251 league strikes is only six fewer than Manchester City have managed in the Premier League during that period.
Napoli had more attempts on goal (656) than any Serie A club in 2017/18, a total that would have ranked them just behind Manchester City (665) in the Premier League. Napoli’s division-high total of shots inside the box (375) also was only inferior to City (411) and Liverpool (391) among top-tier English clubs.
Lorenzo Insigne had an attempt on goal every 17.5 minutes last season, an average that only Harry Kane could better among first-choice Premier League strikers. Insigne’s total of 260 penalty box touches actually trumped Kane’s and that of all other strikers in the English top tier.
Dries Mertens (who Sarri converted into a goal-getting forward during his spell at Napoli), meanwhile, was presented with a chance every 23.5 minutes, while Marek Hamsik’s rate of a shot every 27.9 minutes in Serie A was a figure only Mohamed Salah could better among midfielders with 20+ appearances in the Premier League.
The Neapolitan club also enjoyed more possession (60.3%) than the 19 other Serie A sides last season and their passing accuracy of 87.7% was unsurpassed among the teams in their division – something which bodes well for Chelsea players and their pass completion rewards on the Bonus Points System next season. Manchester City were the only Premier League club to pass with more accuracy in 2017/18.
Turning Chelsea from a counter-attacking side into one that dominates possession will be a focus of Sarri’s this coming season. Only Sassuolo (459) had fewer unsuccessful touches than Napoli in 2017/18, while just four teams were dispossessed on fewer occasions than Sarri’s troops (370).
Napoli also made over 5,000 more short passes than any Serie A club last season.
Creatively, Napoli excelled. Totals of 526 key passes and 456 short key passes were superior to all other top-tier Italian sides and no Premier League club created as many chances, either (City completed 498 key passes, by way of comparison).
Though 13 of their goals came from crosses, Napoli generally shirked the more direct approach. A total of 124 accurate crosses last season was only the 18th-best in Serie A and some 38 fewer than Chelsea in the Premier League.
That Napoli won fewer aerial duels per match (10.8) than all other clubs in their division would underscore that Sarri is keen to keep the ball on the ground – something that Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata (should they remain at the club) would have to adapt to. Morata, indeed, scored more headed goals than any other Premier League striker last season.
Napoli’s defensive statistics make for just as impressive reading.
Their goalkeepers were forced into making just 69 saves last season, only 37 of which were from shots inside the box (the lowest amount in Serie A). Thibaut Courtois and Willy Caballero were called into action on 86 occasions, meanwhile.
Napoli’s low clearance (the worst in Serie A) and interception (second-worst) statistics do not bode well for Chelsea defenders on the Bonus Points System next season, but it would, perhaps, indicate that their chances of recording more clean sheets are enhanced. That Napoli blocked the lowest number of shots and crosses in Serie A in 2017/18 whilst still registering 19 clean sheets would suggest that Sarri’s sides aim to win the ball back before the opposition can do any damage in the final third.
This assertion is backed up by the fact that Napoli ranked fourth-best in the division for passes blocked, highlighting how Sarri’s high press can help his sides retrieve the ball before their opponents can do any significant damage.
What we don’t know yet is which players in Chelsea’s current squad Sarri wants to retain. Jorginho is, of course, a nailed pick in the midfield three, but uncertainty dogs the rest of the side. N’Golo Kante looks assured of a starting berth alongside Chelsea’s new defensive midfielder, while Cesc Fabregas’ ability on the ball would seem a good fit for a Sarri side – though the Catalan playmaker’s ageing limbs are an obvious weakness to a manager who demands a high press.
Cesar Azpilicueta may make the move to right-back if Sarri, as he surely will, turns to his favoured 4-3-3 system, though the Spanish defender is arguably the most talented centre-half on Chelsea’s books.
Should Chelsea be able to resist the advances of Real Madrid et al for Eden Hazard’s services, then the Belgian would be an enticing prospect as part of Sarri’s front three.
As we have touched on, the main concern (aside from the possible departure of Hazard) is Marcos Alonso. Always a little suspect defensively, it remains to be seen whether the gallivanting wing-back features in Sarri’s plans for a more withdrawn role as a conventional full-back. Even if Alonso was to get the nod, the Spaniard’s underlying attacking numbers would surely take a tumble. Mario Rui, who featured in the Napoli side at left-back for much of last season, averaged a shot just once every 298.3 minutes and had only 13 penalty box touches in 25 appearances. Elseid Hysaj, on the opposite flank, was presented with a chance once every 284.1 minutes and had just 22 penalty box touches in his 35 starts. By way of contrast, Alonso averaged a chance once every 44 minutes and had 101 touches in the opposition area in 33 appearances for Chelsea.
Even Faouzi Ghoulam, Napoli’s first-choice, more attack-minded left-back, only averaged a shot once every 98.7 minutes before injury brought his season to a premature end.
All eyes then will be on pre-season and Chelsea’s dealings over the summer to see if we can glean any further clues as to Sarri’s preferred choice of personnel and whether they can be viable Fantasy options in 2018/19. One thing is for sure: the Premier League, and hopefully FPL, will be a more exciting place with Sarri in it.
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