Maurizio Sarri places a significant emphasis on attacking play. There are two components within this: the first is based on circulating ball possession to attract defensive pressure from the opponent, creating gaps to play through, get attackers running with the ball in space and/or in behind, and score goals.
When the opponent does not press, the build up of attacks is based on a style of play known as positional play, which is to occupy specific spaces and zones with the intent of finding a free player who can create a goalscoring opportunity.
There has been a clear and obvious focus on the implementation of this game model in possession. Interestingly, it would appear Sarri’s methodology and coaching process is, in fact, similar to Antonio Conte’s, given the extensive use of set patterns of play, positional rotations and third man runs. There are also similarities in how they rely on a consistent starting XI and a small, core group of players. Put simply, the less players that have to learn a game model, the quicker it is to teach.
The key difference, of course, is in the mentality (Sarri’s attacking emphasis vs Conte’s defensive organisation) and positioning (Sarri positions more players ahead of the ball, Conte uses the striker as a reference point and target player, focusing on longer passes from deep into feet to find runners).
The similarity in methodology probably helped Chelsea adapt to Sarri’s ideas quicker, partly explaining their excellent start to the season.
As the year has progressed, obvious deficiencies have emerged in possession. Chelsea have noticeably struggled against well-organised, defensive teams such as Leicester and Wolves. Generally, too, there has been an issue with creating chances, with games characterised by long spells of significant ball possession, but little penetration.
Therefore, below are some tactical concepts linked to Sarri’s game model that could be improved to solve this problem.
Attract pressure with possession
As alluded to above, a key tenet of Sarri’s game model is attracting defensive pressure from the opponent. Michael Cox discussed this idea in an interesting article for ESPN. To explain the concept further, attracting pressure with possession involves the deliberate use of short passes in build up play, often in deep positions, with the intent to try and provoke the opponent into pressing.
Often, teams will organise into a ‘block’ (such as two banks of four, or a 4-3-3), and will focus on blocking the team in possession from playing through the lines or through defenders. They will only press – that is, actively move to close the ball carrier and attempt to win the ball or force a turnover – upon a certain cue or trigger, such as a backwards pass or a pass to the full-back.
Therefore, Sarri actively encourages the side to play into these pressing traps, in order to provoke the opponent into pressing. An example of this is a pass into Jorginho, the side’s no.6, when he is positioned in between multiple defenders with his back to goal. This is not a pass for Jorginho to receive and face forward. Instead, it is about attracting the opponent to tempt them into pressing.
This is important, because when a side presses, it becomes more difficult for it to stay compact and connected, because pressing requires faster and more coordinated movement, compared to staying in a block. Typically, when a team presses, they try to remain compact from back to front. This that if they try to press in the opposition half, the last line has to step forward/up to remain compact, which can create space in behind. Alternatively, if they don’t stay compact, space can open up between the last line and the midfield. In either case, getting a player free in these positions can lead to highly effective goal scoring opportunities.
Therefore, when Chelsea attract defensive pressure, they are looking to find the space the opponent has left (which always exists – one of the great things about football is that it is near-on impossible to cover all the available pitch space effectively when defending).
The issue at the moment is three-fold. Firstly, teams are pressing Chelsea less. They are aware of what they are trying to do and are instead remaining deeper and compact within a block.
Secondly, in the moments where the opponent does press, the side is not always coordinated to be able to play through the pressure effectively. There are a variety of explanations for this: the defenders lack composure, Jorginho does not always turn when he has space behind, the two advanced midfielders do not adjust their position to get free appropriately, and the forward pass is often inaccurate or misplaced.
Thirdly, Chelsea are not able to attract pressure effectively in all situations. Whilst they understand how to play short in the build up to draw the opponent forward, there are also opportunities in other moments. For example, when the centre-backs are free, they could drive with the ball towards the first pressing line to attract them forward (something Rudiger, in particular, does not do). Another option is to deliberately play into pressing traps and hold the ball in these zones for longer, to tempt more opponents into pressing – something only very skilled technical players can manage.
When it does work, it is superb to watch, and effective at creating goal scoring chances…
…the concern, of course, is that these sort of moments are not occurring regularly.
Get players free behind the midfield line
Rather, a recurring pattern in matches is Chelsea controlling possession against a deep defensive block. The ‘challenge’ is for Chelsea to break the team down to get a player free who can create a goal scoring opportunity. In Sarri’s game model, the team searches for this free player behind the opposition midfield line, in front of the last line (not that this is a new or revolutionary concept, but it does shape the team’s tactical behaviours, as compared to, say, getting a player free in a wide area to cross the ball).
Typically, to achieve this, it often involves the use of structured passing combinations through the midfield zone. An example of this is a pass from centre-back into the 9, who bounces first time into the 10 receiving between the lines (a third man combination). Further examples of these are detailed in this article.
As mentioned in the conclusion of that article, teams are increasingly prepared for these combinations and blocking passing lanes accordingly within their block, or applying pressure immediately to the receiving players to prevent them from getting free in time and space.
Another issue not discussed yet is poor positioning from the 8s to get free between the lines. An example of this is Ross Barkley, who often drops in front of the midfield line (into the same receiving zone as Jorginho, the 6). Whether this is Barkley’s whim, or planned (possibly to vacate space for Hazard to move into between the lines) is not clear, but in either
Currently, another issue is that the squad lacks a left-footed player who can occupy one of the 8 positions. This is important because often the left-sided 8 receives a pass between the lines coming diagonally from right to left across the field.
Therefore, to receive, the left-sided 8 (whether it be Barkley, Kovacic or Loftus-Cheek) often adjusts their body to receive on their right foot. This often means the first touch moves back towards the direction of the ball and towards pressure, reducing the time and space the player has to receive, face forward and create an effective goal scoring opportunity.
This is particularly problematic because of Chelsea’s usual bias towards the left, given Hazard usually plays on this side, Alonso is the more aggressive wing-back and David Luiz is a better creative passer than Rudiger.
Chelsea’s ability to play through lines is also limited by Jorginho’s forward passing. When teams leave him free at the base of the midfield triangle (as Crystal Palace did most recently), his distribution can be poor. His chipped passes in behind are often underhit, and forward passes along the ground into the 8s often lack the speed to bypass the midfield line. This is an area in which the Brazilian can improve.
Forward runs in behind
Positioning and receiving between the lines is particularly not a strength of Kante, the regular right-sided 8. Therefore, Kante’s role in possession is more focused on runs in behind. The most obvious example of this is, of course, the well-taken goal against Crystal Palace – he darts diagonally in between the Palace defenders, timing his run well for David Luiz’s chipped pass.
Sarri made explicit mention of this in his post-game press conference. “He [Kante] is improving, especially in movements without the ball,” said the Italian. “His movement today was really very good and was done with the right timing.”
“When we have to play against opponents who are very low, it’s difficult for the striker and wingers to find space. So for us the midfielders’ movement without the ball is very important.”
These forward runs are crucial for two primary reasons: firstly, most obviously, the run in behind is an opportunity to find a player moving towards goal with a forward pass. Getting in behind an opposition defence is the most straightforward way to score a goal. Secondly, the run in behind can force the opponent last line to drop deeper to cover, opening up space between the lines for free players.
Unsurprisingly, Sarri made mention of the need to improve this quality in his other midfielders.
“Now we have to work on [Ruben] Loftus-Cheek and on [Ross] Barkley. Loftus-Cheek especially is a great player with the ball, but he can improve a lot in his movement without the ball.”
The main ‘escape route’ for Chelsea is to find Hazard behind the lines. He is the best attacker, able to receive under pressure to turn or dribble and face forward, as well as being, as Sébastien Chapuis puts it on Twitter, a ‘world class decision maker’. Against a deep-lying block, players who have the composure and creativity to receive in tight spaces are crucial, something Chapuis believes is evidenced by Sterling, Sane and De Bruyne at Manchester City, and Salah, Mane and Firmino at Liverpool.
The simplest solution, of course, is to simply buy more world class decision makers. Current failings, though, are linked to the need for Hazard to create goal scoring opportunities on his own. This is often difficult because compared to previous years, Hazard has had less opportunities to isolate and take on opposition defenders 1v1.
A key reason is Chelsea’s greater control of possession this season – as under Conte, the deeper positioning of the block meant more space for Hazard to attack in behind when he received. Additionally, it is also linked to a lack of switches of play to his side (particularly as Chelsea tend to build up short on the left), lack of space against deep and compact blocks, and his shift to a central no.9 role.
Whilst moving Hazard to no.9 has always been a topic of contention, the language regarding it is often confused. It is often referred to as a ‘false 9’, but really a 9 only becomes false when someone else becomes the 9 – such as a winger running diagonally inside, or a 10 making a forward run in behind. If the 9 drops deep, then that is a 9 dropping deep – it is the combination of the 9 moving away from his nominal position, and another player taking that space, that makes a false 9.
The issue for Chelsea, then, is the lack of players moving beyond Hazard when he drops deep. This is surprising, because Pedro and Willian have the attributes to do so. Pedro was, of course, pivotal as the player running in behind when Messi moved to the false 9 role at Barcelona, so this may be something Sarri develops further as the season progresses.
Beyond the debate of the false 9, regardless, Chelsea’s attacking play could also be improved by Hazard himself moving beyond defenders more frequently. Given his attributes, the Belgian will often drop off away from defenders to get free where he can control the ball closely and dribble. Yet Hazard has been most effective this season when running in behind towards open space, or in behind the last line – such as his first goal against Brighton, or the opener against Liverpool. Instructing Hazard to run in behind more often might improve Chelsea’s attacking play.