In the present and for ‘short terminists’, Chelsea’s 1-3 loss to Tottenham last Saturday must have grated, but it bodes well for the future for Maurizio Sarri and this Chelsea, only if they take the lessons to heart.
Purists will always applaud Sarri’s football philosophy because it is aesthetic; but what football fans remember first and foremost are titles, not the 100 passes achieved in scoring one goal!
For those who were shocked, the alarm bells did not just come alive at Wembley on November 24; they just became stridently louder. They had been throbbing since the season kicked off against Arsenal on August 18.
This is not about passing the buck or apportioning blames but to highlight the gaps that have always been plain. Though Sarri has tried to place a scaffolding against the structure with the intention that more construction needed on the Blues so they don’t end the season feeling blue.
But there are three conundrums that have to be quickly unscrambled.
The David Luiz conundrum
When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang blazed over in the 19th minute on Matchday 1 at Stamford Bridge, alarm bells should have gone off in Sarri’s head. By the time Chelsea gave Aubameyang the freedom of the Bridge, Chelsea’s supposed last man, Luiz was not in the picture, having been left behind in the Arsenal attack.
He was seen loping back, having given up in preventing the impending goal. Aubameyang found the top rows and Sarri heaved a sigh of relief. But at that moment, the Italian must have recognised the magnitude of the challenge facing him.
In 12 matches, Chelsea have conceded 11 goals. Before Saturday’s Wembley whitewash, they had conceded just once away from the Bridge, but they could have conceded six last Saturday. For two [five this season] of the goals, the Brazilian, chasing a new Chelsea contract, was directly at fault. Turning your back on a shot from outside the box is a grave sin, which allowed Harry Kane to wrong-foot Kepa Arrizibalaga for Tottenham’s second goal.
Son’s goal was a timely reminder of a past Gary Neville description of Luiz as a defender who looks to be controlled by a teenager on PlayStation. But the lackadaisical and non-cerebral defending did not just start against Spurs. On at least five occasions this season, Luiz has looked more like a defender in League One than one who has won the Champions League and gotten to a FIFA World Cup semi-final.
Possession and passing over substance
In the loss, Chelsea had 60% of possession but just two shots on target while Spurs had nine shots, scored three, but it could have been more. Despite the big numbers on possession, Spurs just had one thing to do – shackle Jorginho and the Chelsea juggernaut would be stopped and that is how it proved.
The former Napoli midfielder has been lauded to high heavens because of his carousel-like passing ability; but he was caged and could only complete 43 passes last Saturday, down from an average of 95 before the meeting with Tottenham. For their London rivals, Christian Eriksen attempted 27 passes and completed 23 – creating seven scoring chances. Simply put, Eriksen was quietly effective in the areas that really mattered. Jorginho’s defensive gaps were also exposed, especially his lack of pace and the propensity to get frustrated when he is not having his way.
Helping Sarri become more effective
‘Sarrisimo’ will always be a coveted part of football and fans would love to sigh delightfully when a 30-pass move results in a goal, and maybe a good win but their sighs would be deeper when they can gloat over a trophy or a title.
Before the match against Tottenham, the average pundit knew Jorginho would be targeted and for a new entrant into English Premier League, and one lacking enough pace, there was always the chance that the Italian could be got at, and that was how it panned out. Wouldn’t it have been a game changer if N’Golo Kante had reverted to the centre of the pitch flanked by two hard-working midfielders? With the benefit of hindsight, it was a mistake to play both Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic together against an aggressive unit like Spurs.
Sarri cannot afford to be dogmatic in barreling his players into a formation cage. Let him look at Pep Guardiola and how he has changed his possession-based philosophy to include and accommodate goalkeepers and defenders that can go long against a suffocating press. Sarri must iterate his plan because everybody has now seen how to play successfully against Chelsea. If Sarri will succeed in London, then he needs a Plan B.