Chelsea

Sarri seems to be the hardest word: Will Blues outcasts get second chance?

 • by Mark Thompson
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A new manager is the chance for change, and every bit-part player at Chelsea will be hoping they can impress Maurizio Sarri and move up the pecking order.

The Italian wants to bring his style of football to Stamford Bridge, and seems confident that he should be able to do it.

“I think with one or two adjustments we can try to play my football,” he said in his first interview as Chelsea manager. “I want first of all to enjoy myself, the players have to enjoy themselves, and most of all I hope that the fans can enjoy the team.”

The fast-paced, possession-based play will be a pretty large change in style from the football that Antonio Conte played, and that could be a source of comfort for some in the Chelsea squad who found themselves sidelined of late.

Here are five such players, and their chances of muscling their way into the starting line-up under the new manager.

Danny Drinkwater

Drinkwater probably won’t be too happy about the signing of Jorginho. Both can be filed under ‘possession-based central midfielder’, and Jorginho is both better and has the advantage of having worked with Sarri before.

Comparing their Football Whispers persona radars – for Jorginho last season and for Drinkwater in his last season at Leicester City, a more similar role to that he’d likely play for Sarri than his sporadic minutes in 2017/18 under Conte – you can see how similar they are.

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While Drinkwater looks more defensive there, that is partially due to the extent to which Jorginho’s game is characterised by build-up play (i.e. hugely). In the respective seasons, the Italian made 3.98 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, while the Englishman made only marginally more with 4.55.

Unfortunately for the former Leicester man, Jorginho seems like Drinkwater-plus. Drinkchampagne, if you will.

Ross Barkley

Chelsea’s other peripheral Englishman might have more chance of breaking into the first-team.

His particular set of skills – chance creation and dribbling up the centre of the field – mean he could work as an attacking-minded central midfielder in a 4-3-3.

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Chelsea’s central midfield options are interesting. N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho seem shoo-ins for a place in the starting line-up, unless the Frenchman, a Paris Saint-Germain transfer target, moves elsewhere. But a third spot in a central midfield three seems up for grabs.

Cesc Fàbregas may not have the legs to be a regular in midfield, particularly with Jorginho destined for the deeper-lying role, so Barkley might just be able to slip in.

Gary Cahill

Unfortunately, it seems likely that Cahill’s fate will be more similar to Drinkwater’s than Barkley’s.

If Sarri changes system to a 4-3-3, as seems likely, that cuts down the spaces available for centre-backs, and the Englishman probably doesn’t fit with the kind of defenders Sarri’s system requires.

It’s not as if Chelsea’s system under Conte avoided their centre-backs passing the ball, and Cahill averaged more than 50 accurate passes per 90 minutes in 2017/18, but Napoli under Sarri were something else.

Kalidou Koulibaly – reportedly a Chelsea transfer target before Sarri arrived – and Raúl Albiol made the 12th and 20th most accurate passes per 90 out of the Big Five European leagues last season. Among centre-backs, the only ones to have averaged more passes than Koulibaly were Manchester City players.

If Cahill is expected to match the Senegal international’s 79.8 accurate passes per 90, it’d represent an extra 56 percent of his 2017/18 passing workload. The Englishman didn’t always look comfortable when in possession under Conte, and under Sarri it might be even worse.

In Cahill’s favour is his age and experience, which the new manager might appreciate, but working against him is the fact there are so many centre-backs at Stamford Bridge. If one doesn’t fit, it’s easy for them to be disregarded.

And with reports that Cahill is planning to quit the club if the Blues bring in Juventus prospect Daniele Rugani, it looks like either he or Sarri has already made the decision.

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David Luiz

Luiz would be coming out of the cold even more than Cahill, but perhaps has a better chance of getting into the warmth of the starting XI again. The Brazilian seems more comfortably on the ball than the club captain, and once averaged nearly 75 accurate passes per 90 while at PSG.

But does he have the concentration levels to stay mentally, as well as physically, on the ball? It’s one of the things that Luiz has been criticised for throughout his career, and although he seemed to improve in 2016/17, when in the middle of Conte’s back three, he lost his place last season and a centre-back duo will leave less room to hide defensively.

Transfer rumours around Luiz have dried up since early June, when he was linked with a move back to Portugal, to Arsenal, or to Napoli. That doesn’t mean that he’s staying for sure, but Luiz getting an increased role under Sarri would make as much sense as him leaving the club for good.

Michy Batshuayi

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The Belgian must be questioning his decision to sign for Chelsea two summers ago. Since joining in 2016, he’s played just 592 league minutes for the Blues. Even more bizarre, those minutes – the equivalent of 6.6 full games – came in 32 appearances, meaning that he averaged just 18 minutes and 30 seconds per outing.

Even more bizarrely still, Batshuayi was bought for £33million. He played 836 league minutes for Borussia Dortmund in a half-season loan last season, 141 percent of his league game-time in 18 months for Chelsea.

It’s no wonder the 24-year-old was keen on making his move to Germany permanent. But with rumours swirling around Álvaro Morata and a potential departure, an opportunity might open up for Batshuayi (assuming, of course, that Gonzalo Higuaín doesn’t arrive at Stamford Bridge).

To make his case under Sarri, he might need to rounden out his game – Napoli striker Dries Mertens made 1.7 key passes per 90 last season; Batshuayi managed just 0.4 while at Dortmund.

It wouldn’t be hard for the Belgian to see more game-time under Sarri than Conte, but that doesn’t mean that it’s worth his while sticking around.

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