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The 2018-19 Premier League XI: Can Maurizio Sarri stabilize or revolutionize Chelsea?

Henry Bushnell
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The 2018-19 Premier League season is upon us. Kickoff, believe it or not, is just days away. To get you set for the planet’s most enthralling 38-game soccer circuit, Yahoo Sports’ Premier League XI will delve into the 11 most compelling questions ahead of the coming campaign. The next of the 11 concerns Chelsea.

Antonio Conte is gone. Finally. Belatedly. Mercifully. Controversially. And unfortunately – Chelsea’s self-destructive war with its own manager cost the Premier League one of modern soccer’s great tactical minds.

So the Stamford Bridge managerial carousel spun again, for the 11th time in 11 seasons. This time spit out another Italian just as fascinating as Conte. Maurizio Sarri has arrived in London from Napoli with his touchline cigarettes and many eccentricities. He has insisted he’s “not homophobic and not sexist.” And he’s ready to revolutionize a squad that was run into the ground by his predecessor.

The main question, though: Will Chelsea allow him to do so?

Maurizio Sarri arrives from Napoli as Chelsea’s 12th manager in 11 seasons. (Getty)
Maurizio Sarri arrives from Napoli as Chelsea’s 12th manager in 11 seasons. (Getty)

Both Conte and the club were at fault for their ugly divorce. But it, the constant managerial attrition, and the stylistic contrasts between the two Italian bosses say a lot about the club’s ailments. Can Sarri cure them?

Those are two very different questions. But they’re related. And they’re equally pertinent.

Why the Chelsea-Conte disconnect was problematic

Chelsea vs. Conte, in 150 words: The former Juventus manager wanted control. Coming off a debut title triumph, he felt he deserved more and pushed for more. Chelsea pushed back.

Conte wanted the club to spend more. He wanted more decision-making power. He didn’t get it. Chelsea, in many ways, has become the ultimate modern club, with a board and executives controlling transfer policy and recruitment. The manager is involved, and when the push-pull relationship is healthy, it breeds success.

But the back-room staff’s philosophies and preferences clashed with Conte’s. The Italian spent much of his second season lobbing public criticism at his employer/colleagues. Club director Marina Granovskaia and her behind-the-scenes team didn’t flinch, and instead pulled the plug on Conte’s reign.

Which is fine. In a vacuum, balances of power and divisions of labor better a club. If Conte couldn’t accept that, he had to go. But then why hire Conte in the first place?

What is Chelsea’s vision?

It is clear who’s in charge at Chelsea. So why did the club keep hiring managers – first Jose Mourinho, now Conte – who wanted to be in charge themselves?

Chelsea has a structure, but it’s unclear whether it has an accompanying vision. The idea of the sporting director model is to give a club direction and principles that outlive coaches and sustain themselves through coaching changes. But it requires some level of consistency from hire to hire. Chelsea’s volatility stems directly from managerial contrasts. Mourinho was very different from Conte, who himself is very different from Sarri.

If every coaching change necessitates a tactical and ideological shift, and therefore a personnel overhaul, the model is useless. And that’s why Chelsea finds itself facing another retooling project.

What does Maurizio Sarri bring to Chelsea?

Sarri is a departure from Conte in so many ways. The former Blues boss used a measured, rigid, defensive-minded press out of a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. The new one will force Chelsea players out of their shells and comfort zones with a high-tempo, pass-heavy, movement-heavy system.

When Sarri’s teams are in possession, the ball doesn’t stop. When they’re out of possession, players don’t stop. They press ravenously and attack fluidly from a 4-3-3. Defensively, they’ll be more helter-skelter than Conte’s sides. Offensively, they’ll play out from the back at (almost) all costs, in Pep Guardiola-esque fashion.

In fact, Guardiola and Sarri share mutual admiration for one another, and if Sarri’s machine functions at the Bridge, it’ll come closer to touching Guardiola’s Man City stylistically than anything else in the Premier League.

The big, fat question marks, of course, are whether it has the parts, and how well it can function without them.

How does Chelsea’s squad fit Sarri’s system?

The squad Sarri inherits has some wonderful fits. Some. A few. Chief among them are Eden Hazard and Willian. But it’s unclear if either, neither or both will be at the club come September. Thibaut Courtois is also strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid. Sarri’s first Chelsea unit isn’t yet fully formed, and he might lose a few pivotal pieces before he can bring in some of his own.

In midfield, he has already brought Jorginho with him from Napoli to dictate games. N’Golo Kante can adapt to almost any system. Other players that figure to stick are Marcos Alonso, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen.

That leaves holes at right back, attacking midfield and striker. A physical, athletic center back might be a need as well. And winger could turn into one if either Hazard or Willian departs.

The dilemma for Sarri is whether to jam square pegs into round holes or find new pegs. Is Gary Cahill good enough on the ball? Is Cesar Azpilicueta physical enough to play centrally in a back four, or skilled enough going forward to play fullback? Victor Moses isn’t a Sarri winger; can he slide all the way back to right back?

Further up the field, Marek Hamsik was a fixture for Napoli in the most advanced midfield role. He was also unique. Chelsea certainly doesn’t have established equivalents. But could Ruben Loftus-Cheek emerge as something between an 8 and 10? Could Ross Barkley, who’s still only 24, re-find his 20-year-old form (and health)? Could Cesc Fabregas carve out a stopgap role until next summer? What about Danny Drinkwater?

That’s not to mention Tiemoue Bakayoko, one of the most prized 22-year-olds in the world at this time last year, who simply doesn’t offer enough on the ball to be viable in a Sarri midfield alongside Kante.

And up top, where Dries Mertens made Sarri’s Napoli hum, Olivier Giroud is a polar opposite. Alvaro Morata isn’t much better dropping off and facilitating. Michy Batshuayi seems suited to a supersub role – if he stays at the club.

All of which is to say that Sarri also assumes a ton of (likely) dead weight. He was an exciting hire on the surface. But Chelsea’s intermittent turmoil and lack of continuity have left the 59-year-old with a mess. The delayed nature of the Conte saga left him with less than a month to sort it out.

So the revolution won’t be instantaneous. Whether Sarri eventually brings stability depends on whether Chelsea gives the revolution time to play out.

The rest of the 2018-19 Premier League XI

Monday: What could derail Man City’s title defense?
Monday: Can Sarri revolutionize or stabilize Chelsea?
Monday: Who’s getting relegated?
Tuesday: Who, if anybody, can break up the top six?
Is Liverpool closing on City?
What to expect at Arsenal post-Wenger?
Wednesday: Is a Mourinho flameout already underway?
Wednesday: Is Spurs’ trophy deadline approaching?
Wednesday: Wolves: Shady, brilliant, or both?
Thursday a.m.: Predictions
Thursday p.m.: Transfer window winners/losers

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Manchester United
+240+1O 2.5
+120-1U 2.5