Antonio Conte fell victim to the Roman Abramovich regime and Maurizio Sarri has been given the task of rejuvenating a deflated group of players and transforming them into Premier League title contenders.
The chain smoking ex-banker, who inspired Napoli to a runners-up spot in the Italian Serie A last season, becomes The Blues‘ tenth manager in the last ten years. He’ll know very well that the margin for error is extremely small but seemed unperturbed by questions regarding Abramovich in his first press conference as Chelsea manager.
All of the post-season gossip has focused on whether Chelsea can hang on to their world-class talent, especially Eden Hazard, Willian and Thibaut Courtois. All three players have been heavily linked with a move away and N’Golo Kante has also been appearing in the papers due to numerous high-profile European clubs allegedly hunting his signature.
The question of whether Sarri can bring immediate success like so many of his predecessors rests entirely on keeping this nucleus of players. He’s stepped up his attempts of retaining the services of Belgian international Eden Hazard by offering him the club captaincy and his decision to revert to a back-four suggests he’s set to take the club in a different direction to his predecessor Antonio Conte.
Chelsea have already signed Jorginho for £57 million from Sarri’s previous club Napoli. He looks set to replace, or at least provide competition, for Cesc Fabregas in central midfield. He is technically gifted with a fantastic range of passing. Sarri likes to play a 4-3-3 formation, with which Chelsea have enjoyed huge success before. If this is the case, Sarri will need to buy another central midfielder. Bakayoko and Drinkwater are below the standard expected at Stamford Bridge and although Chelsea fans would be hopeful that Loftus-Cheek will play a major role in the team this year, they are still lacking quality in this area. The Blues have been linked to Milinkovic-Savic. The 23-year-old Serbian caught the eye at the World Cup, with his late surges into the box from midfield reminiscent of Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, but an offer of over £100 million will be required to bring the Lazio man to Stamford Bridge.
Of the players linked with a summer departure, Courtois looks the most likely to leave. Real Madrid are said to be interested, and with his family still based in the Spanish capital, he looks set to return home. England hero Jordan Pickford could be the man to replace Courtois. Everton’s player of the season excelled in the World Cup this summer. At just 24 years old, he could be a number 1 for another 10 years.
In each of the last three seasons, Chelsea have had a net spend of less than £40 million. If the squad is to be improved dramatically, players will need to be sold to bring others in. In the past Chelsea have relied on selling youth players or those who have gained notoriety from loan spells to buy ready-made first-team stars. Last season in particular, this did not work. Davide Zappacosta was brought in as competition for Victor Moses, but provided none. Chelsea fans gazed longingly at what their own midfielder Loftus-Cheek was doing at Crystal Palace, and were forced to watch Bakayoko bumbling around Stamford Bridge week in, week out. Whether they will look to sell fringe players or stars remains to be seen. They need to make sure the players they bring in are better than what they willing to let go.
Morata, Not Higuain
Chelsea had also been heavily linked with Gonzalo Higuain. He enjoyed a record-breaking season under the stewardship of Sarri at Napoli 3 seasons ago. But with striking options Morata, Giroud and Batshuayi already at the club, Chelsea would have had to sell to make room for him. At 30 years of age, the signing of Higuain had the nostalgic whiff of other past-it strikers. More of the Shevchenko or Torres, than the success stories of Drogba or Diego Costa. Morata had a fantastic start to last season. Sarri would be wise to try and get the best out of the striker before looking elsewhere.
The Premier League for Managers
Mourinho, Ancelotti and Conté all won the Premier League title in their first season at Stamford Bridge. But they did not have to face the Manchester City team that Pep Guardiola has developed. Manchester City ran away with the title last season, breaking all records in the process. With Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United all with world-class managers, a top 4 finish could be deemed a success. A huge plus for Chelsea in the race for the top 4 this season is the lack of Champions League football. Sarri would be wise to use Chelsea’s fantastic youth players in the Europa League and leave the ‘big guns’ fresh for weekend Premier League fixtures. Youngsters like Ampadu and Hudson-Odoi have shown in glimpses for the first team the talent they have. Unless they are allowed the experience of big games they will follow the trend of Chelsea youth products and fall by the wayside.
Since Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, there have only been 3 seasons in which they have failed to win a major trophy. Whilst attractive football, use of the youth players and a top 4 finish may be enough to appease the fans in the first season, Abramovich is not renowned for his patience and can pull the trigger on a manager if success or silverware is not on the horizon. Sarri has promised to bring “beautiful football” to Stamford Bridge, whether he can with the winning football the owner demands, remains to be seen.