From the moment Maurizio Sarri’s name was first seriously mentioned in connection with the Chelsea post over the summer, while Antonio Conte’s position was brought into question before he was eventually relieved of his duties, a familiar caveat was bandied around.
Just as Mauricio Pochettino’s otherwise undeniable qualities are too often undersold due to the fact he has not yet delivered silverware for Tottenham Hotspur, it was deemed by many that Sarri was not a perfect fit for the Blues as his Napoli side, for all their aesthetically pleasing play, won nothing.
Yet those who followed Sarri’s stewardship of the Partenopei closely were far less concerned with any lack of silverware than with another issue.
Napoli’s 91-point haul last season would have been enough to secure the Scudetto in all but five seasons in the division’s history, and Juventus‘ dominance on and off the field is such that even narrowing the gap as Sarri did represents a greater achievement than any second-rate cup win.
But the Italian tactician’s aversion to squad rotation, a fact of life at a major European club fighting on multiple fronts, was a more valid concern.
Last season, nine Napoli players started 32 or more of the club’s 38 Serie A fixtures, a figure which would have been higher still had first-choice left-back Faouzi Ghoulam not fallen injured. These same nine players all featured in more than 2600 top-flight minutes in 2017/18.
Meanwhile, many of Napoli’s more-than-serviceable squad players were not leant on enough. Gifted 21-year-old defensive midfielder Amadou Diawara began just five Serie A games, Croatian midfielder Marko Rog didn’t make a single start, and centre-back Nikola Maksimović, a £21million signing from Torino, featured just once in the starting XI.
There was little rotation of the vaunted front three, too. Dries Mertens made 35 starts and came off the bench in the other three league games. Wide man José Callejon began all 38 Serie A games. And star man Lorenzo Insigne was a starter 36 times, with only one game missed altogether.
Outside of those nine players with 32 or more starts – plus the injured Ghoulam and his replacement, Mário Rui – midfielder Piotr Zieliński (14) was the only Napoli player to start more than five Serie A games last season.
It has been very reasonably posited that Sarri’s refusal to sufficiently rotate his charges led to his core of trusted individuals becoming jaded as the season wore on, thus unable to carry the title fight to Juventus in the final weeks. With a first Scudetto in 28 years within reach, Napoli slipped up critically against Fiorentina, losing 3-0 on April 29, and then could only draw 2-2 with Torino a week later.
Between December 16 and February 23, Napoli won ten Serie A games in a row; they won only half of their 12 remaining fixtures after that point. They were victorious in their last two Serie A games but by then the pressure was already off, with Juve never likely to surrender the advantage Napoli had handed them.
Since arriving at Stamford Bridge, though, the 59-year-old Sarri appears to have learned valuable lessons about how to better manage the physical load his players carry.
In addition to surprising many of his doubters with how quickly his unique playing style has been understood and adopted in west London, the Italian is astutely making full use of Chelsea‘s talent-rich squad.
He still appears to have a trusted core upon which he relies heavily, with his back five of Kepa, the world’s most-expense goalkeeper, Marcos Alonso, Antonio Rüdiger, David Luiz and César Azpilicueta all ever-presents after ten Premier League games, as too are N’Golo Kanté and playmaker Jorginho, for whom Chelsea have no genuine alternatives.
But in the attacking positions, Sarri has rotated dutifully. Eden Hazard’s post-Word Cup recovery meant he was only a substitute for the first two games of 2018//19, and he will surely remain a near-immovable member of the first XI.
Ross Barkley and Matéo Kovačić are sharing the third midfield role alongside Kanté and Jorginho, though, with Álvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, Willian and Pedro all featuring on at least a semi-regular basis further forward.
With focus trained on getting Chelsea back into the Premier League’s top four, and thus qualify for the Champions League, Sarri appears to be using the club’s participation in the Europa League as a means of blooding the Blues’ gifted youngsters, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek a recent hat-trick scorer in the competition and 17-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi also seeing senior action.
Sarri’s more-liberal use of his squad players is paying dividends so far, too. Chelsea are currently keeping in touching distance with Liverpool and Premier League champions Manchester City in the upper-echelons of the table, unbeaten through ten games.
It remains to be seen whether Sarri’s newfound appreciation for rotation is through necessity or design, however. The former banker regards the transfer market with disdain, labelling it the “refuge of the weak”, and prefers a hands-on coaching approach to maximise a smaller group of players, rather than spending big to bloat a squad unnecessarily.
With misfiring strikers and, save for Hazard, a general quality of forward player below the standard he nourished at Napoli, Sarri’s current method of bringing attacking players in and out of the team might just be a process of elimination aimed at whittling down his options.
But whether stumbled upon or studiously considered, Sarri is too smart a coach to overlook the benefits of rotation that he is now seeing with Chelsea.