In isolation, defeat in a glorified friendly against arguably the best team in English football history is hardly a cause for alarm. Even the most optimistic Chelsea supporters will have anticipated defeat so soon after the arrival of Maurizio Sarri, but nevertheless their performance on Sunday at Wembley – when put into the wider context of a difficult summer in west London – might leave fans legitimately worried about the campaign ahead.
Appointing Sarri marks a significant shift in tactical strategy for Chelsea following 14 years of reactive counter-attacking football instigated by Jose Mourinho way back in 2004. Roman Abramovich has consistently hired coaches that loosely follow Mourinho’s principles of conservatism, with the notable exception, Andres Villas-Boas, proving so disastrous that Abramovich quickly reverted to type. From Luis Felipe Scolari to Rafa Benitez to Antonio Conte, Chelsea have sought easy transitions between coaches – until now.
Sarri’s high-tempo possession football reflects the aesthetic Abramovich dreamed of playing when he bought the club in 2003. This may buy the Italian more time than his predecessors, although having spent just three weeks with the squad when the Premier League campaign begins it is quite possible that Abramovich’s patience will run out before things click for Sarri in the capital. The Community Shield result certainly indicates Chelsea will make a stuttering start.
The most notable feature of Sunday’s game was the ease with which Manchester City tore through the Chelsea midfield, either on the counter-attack or with one simple, vertical pass either side of Jorginho. Sarri’s high defensive line was exposed frequently by City’s slick passing, which left the new Brazilian midfielder looking puzzled and Chelsea’s centre-back pair alarmingly overwhelmed.
These are precisely the tactical flaws that can be expected when a team is still in the process of learning to play a possession-based high-pressing system. Shutting down counter-attacks (by pressing as a unit) and closing out gaps between the defence and midfield (by showing bravery in stepping up as a team) only come with time – something Sarri and Chelsea simply don’t have thanks to the protracted contract negotiations between Sarri, Conte, and Chelsea.
Jorginho is the perfect Sarri player but it will take him several months to adapt to the pace of English football, something that inevitably hits deep-lying central midfielders the hardest (see Tiemoue Bakayoko). N’Golo Kante won’t be able to plug all the gaps, and it won’t take long for rival coaches to spot Chelsea’s vulnerability to incisive counter-attacks; tactics as complex as Sarri’s require positional perfection from each individual. Any chink in the armour and his bold, attacking formation can be exposed.
The situation isn’t helped by Chelsea’s chaotic summer transfer window. Thibault Courtois has gone AWOL ahead of a move to Real Madrid while both Willian and Eden Hazard could still leave before Thursday’s deadline. Replacing either of their wingers won’t be easy, a fact highlighted by Chelsea’s late approach for Jack Butland, a clear downgrade on the Belgium number one.
The season begins with a trip to Huddersfield Town, who shocked everyone last season by opening the campaign with a 3-0 victory against Crystal Palace, a club also attempting a hasty transition towards high-tempo possession football under Frank de Boer - and picked off expertly by the Terriers. Chelsea are a considerably better side than that Palace one, of course, but David Wagner evidently knows exactly how to respond to the scenario they face on Saturday at Kirklees.
Chelsea then host Arsenal and travel to Newcastle United in the final games of August, completing a difficult opening month of the calendar that could leave Sarri in an awkward position. There is no doubt that, given time, Sarri will be a success at Stamford Bridge, but having had so little time to work with his squad (and with several key players possibly leaving the club this week) the Italian might endure a rough start. Abramovich has rarely shown patience in the past; for a club embarking on an exciting new era things are looking decidedly ominous.