Chelsea took a step into the unknown by hiring Maurizio Sarri.
The bespectacled, chain-smoking tactician’s Napoli entranced Europe with the coach’s brand of aggressive, attacking football which became known as ‘Sarri-ball.’
However, following his appointment, legitimate concerns were raised. While clearly a gifted strategist and thinker, was Sarri the man to bring Premier League and Champions League trophies back to Stamford Bridge and appease Roman Abramovich’s insatiable appetite for silverware?
The 59-year-old’s coaching career has taken him from Italian football’s nether regions to the richest league in the world. His near three-decade odyssey has, however, failed to yield a major piece of silverware.
The consensus is that Chelsea represents his best opportunity to rectify that.
And while fans understood that Sarri would require time to develop a squad worthy of challenging Manchester City at the Premier League summit, there was a reasonable expectancy that, failing trophies, the eccentric Napolitano would deliver the excitement that perished in the dying embers of Antonio Conte’s reign.
And yes, while we’re wary of making sweeping conclusions after two games of the new season, we can say that, with regards to Chelsea’s attack at least, the prognosis for the Sarri revolution is bright.
Chelsea opened their Premier League campaign by putting hapless Huddersfield Town to the sword. The Blues eased to a 3-0 victory, with N’Golo Kanté, dedicated Sarri-ball practitioner Jorginho, and Pedro grabbing the goals.
Last weekend, Chelsea dispatched Unai Emery’s Arsenal 3-2. Pedro scored once again, firing home the opener before Álvaro Morata and Marcos Alonso opened their accounts for the season.
The win over Arsenal wasn’t as comfortable as it should have been. Two up inside 20 minutes, Sarri’s men should have strolled to a stress-free three points. Of course, having a central defensive partnership of David Luiz and Antonio Rüdiger complicates matters.
And while Sarri will ponder his side’s defensive fragilities, he can be satisfied with his players at the opposite end. They include Eden Hazard, who has returned from his post-World Cup holiday to make a couple of match-stealing cameo appearances from the bench.
Indeed, Hazard has only been on the pitch for 43 minutes this season and has already notched himself two assists, the second of which sealed three points against Arsenal after teeing up Alonso for the winner.
Having eased his way back into the weekly grind, Hazard’s inclusion from the start against Newcastle United on Sunday seems a given.
With Morata back in the goals, it would seem harsh to drop the Spaniard at this point, meaning one of Pedro or Willian face being dropped.
Surprisingly, while Willian offers craft, energy and precision from the flank, it is Pedro who has convinced more during the two-game audition for the spot on the opposite wing to Hazard.
Having shone during Chelsea’s title-winning 2016/17 campaign, Pedro fell out of favour under Conte last year, starting only 17 Premier League games. Despite Willian’s well-documented differences with Conte, the Brazilian started 20 times, accruing a total of 1883 minutes to the former Barcelona forward’s 1524.
But, with Hazard fit enough only for match-winning interventions from the bench, Sarri has seemed eager to give Willian and Pedro an equal opportunity. Willian played 76 minutes against Huddersfield, while Pedro lasted a further five.
However, with the game against Arsenal locked at 2-2, Sarri withdrew Willian, not Pedro, for Hazard with almost half an hour remaining.
That Sarri hooked Willian off is both telling and justified. Over the two games so far this season, Pedro has averaged 1.57 open play key passes to Willian’s 0.65, which is surprising given the South American’s reputation as a playmaker.
Pedro also edges his teammate in expected goals and, although Willian has struck 25 times over the last two seasons, it is the 31-year-old who appears to be thriving the most under Sarri.
Against Arsenal, Pedro’s off the ball movement was exemplary; his darting, angled runs off the shoulder of defenders compliment Jorginho’s qualities as a deep-lying playmaker, thus adding a new dimension to the Blues’ attack.
Willian has notched an assist, of course, but Pedro’s goals and off-the-ball work have seemingly been enough to convince his new manager – for now, at least.
As a caveat, Pedro’s form has been erratic during his time in England, oscillating unpredictably from genius to enigma. Willian, on the other hand, has been a model of consistency. While Pedro appears to have won the initial battle, do not be surprised if Willian re-emerges and cements his place under Sarri.