Despite a Premier League title and an FA Cup during his two seasons in England, Antonio Conte was sacked by Chelsea just a month before the start of the new Premier League season. His successor, Maurizio Sarri, has had little time to prepare for a huge season for the club, though what can we expect from the Blues in 2018/19?
The 2017/18 campaign was one to forget for Chelsea fans. Having almost unexpectedly run away with the league title in Antonio Conte’s first season, the Italian manager’s attempt at defending the Premier League was a dismal failure. The warning signs were present before last season had even begun, as Conte infamously discarded fan favourite Diego Costa from his plans via a brutal text message.
The off-the-field problems continued to mount for Chelsea, which were mirrored by a series of poor performances and consequently even resulted in the Blues missing out on the illustrious Champions League spot. Even an FA Cup win couldn’t mask over the on-going dressing room problems, as winger Willian decided to upload a team photo with three trophy emojis blocking out Antonio Conte.
The passionate Italian outfoxed all the other big clubs with his 3-5-2 formation, tight defence, pacey wing backs and slick counter attacks in his first season, but once other managers started copying this formation and learning how to play against this Conte side, his tactics were far less effective in the 2017/18 campaign.
Manager and Preferred Tactics
After one Italian manager was sacked from Chelsea, another Italian manager, Maurizio Sarri, took the helm, albeit in somewhat delayed circumstances. Sarri’s footballing philosophy is very much in stark contrast to what Chelsea fans have been used to.
From Mourinho’s and Conte’s defence-minded and highly organised approaches, Sarri offers a style of football similar to that of Pep Guardiola. His emphasis on attack-minded and entertaining football has earned the nickname ‘Sarri-ball’, which truly was a joy to watch last season as Napoli ran Juventus all the way down to the wire in the Serie A title race, finishing 4 points behind the winners with a highly impressive 91 points.
Sarri tends to opt for a 4-3-3 formation, with an emphasis on heavy pressing and a defensive line which sets very high in order to pressure the opponents to win the ball back as quickly as possible. The Italian likes his front 3 to be highly mobile, with both wingers and strikers possessing pace – so it will be interesting to see whether Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata will fit into Sarri’s plans.
An air of uncertainty looms over some of Chelsea’s key players this transfer window, the most significant of which is none other than Eden Hazard.
After a brilliant World Cup, the Belgium winger has been heavy linked to fill Christiano Ronaldo’s boots at Real Madrid, but as of yet, he still remains a Chelsea player. Hazard is exactly the kind of pacey winger that could thrive in Sarri’s system.
Hazard’s fellow countryman Dries Mertens finished last season as Napoli’s top scorer with 22 goals under Sarri, and there is no denying that Eden Hazard is the superior winger of the two. If Chelsea can keep hold of their star man, Hazard could have his best season yet.
Another player of the utmost importance to Chelsea is World Cup winner N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman has revolutionised the role of defensive midfielder, as he imperiously goes from strength to strength every season, covering every blade of grass and seemingly winning almost every tackle there is to make.
A central midfield partnership of N’Golo Kante and newly signed Jorginho will have Chelsea fans licking their lips. If these two players can tick, few teams in the Premier League will be able to match this midfield duo.
One key issue that Maurizio Sarri must resolve as new Chelsea manager is that of the captaincy. Since the departure of long serving captain John Terry, Gary Cahill has been given the armband. But after some questionable performances last season, his role in the first team this season may be somewhat limited, particularly if a new, defensive addition comes in.
Sarri could tempt Eden Hazard to stay in West London by appointing him captain for this upcoming season, whilst other options such as the experienced Cesc Fabregas or the ever-vocal Cesar Azpilicueta remain a distinct possibility.
Since Maurizio Sarri’s appointment as Chelsea manager took some time to complete, Chelsea have been playing catch up in this summer’s transfer window, with the only significant arrival being Brazilian midfielder Jorginho for £57m. Chelsea are also in need of a striker who will be able to thrive under Sarri’s new system, and the Blues have been linked with Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain whose future looks in doubt following the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo in Turin.
Perhaps of more concern are the potential outgoings for Chelsea. Eden Hazard, Willian, N’Golo Kante and Thibuat Courtois have all been linked with moves away from Stamford Bridge. It is imperative that the Blues either keep hold of these key players or adequately replace them with players of a similar standard. If not, Chelsea could struggle again this season.
Chelsea are no doubt in a difficult period at the moment, particularly after missing out on the Champions League. Throughout the Abramovich era, nothing short of instant success has been demanded, but with all the top teams likeManchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and even Arsenal strengthening significantly around them, it may be too much to ask for a Premier League title in Sarri’s first season.
Having said that, Conte found himself in the same position in his first season in charge, and look how that turned out. Even so, targets for a successful season for Chelsea in the 2018/19 campaign would be first and foremost to get back in the Champions League, where a club like Chelsea certainly belongs. But the battle for top four has never been as hard as it is right now as Chelsea and Arsenal found out to their cost last season.