Chelsea: Maurizio Sarri uses everybody in all competitions, for better or worse

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 27: Willian of Chelsea celebrates after scoring his team's first goal with Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea during the FA Cup Fourth Round match between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge on January 27, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 27: Willian of Chelsea celebrates after scoring his team's first goal with Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea during the FA Cup Fourth Round match between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge on January 27, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images) /
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Maurizio Sarri set his squad usage patterns early and, like so much else, rarely deviated. The details of how Chelsea players picked up their minutes show the fastidiousness of the banker he is at heart.

Maurizio Sarri takes the idea of a 24-man squad both literally and seriously. Sarri has used 24 players in each of the Premier League, Europa League and Carabao Cup so far this season. Only in the FA Cup has he deviated from this pattern: he fielded 23 players, even though Chelsea had only three FA Cup ties, their least of any competition.

Overall, 25 players have taken the pitch for Chelsea this season. Of those, 21 have appeared in all four competitions. The distribution of minutes through matchweek 30 of the Premier League is an expansion of what Sarri set out the first time we looked at this question after matchweek 12.

Sarri has eight players at the core of his Premier League starting lineup. There is then a drop-off to the next cluster of six players. Gonzalo Higuain has taken Alvaro Morata’s place among those six, while Willian and Eden Hazard have swapped places bridging the gap between the truly favoured eight and the substitutes six. Hazard has 600 more minutes in the Premier League than Willian, but the Brazilian’s greater involvement in the Europa League keeps them level over all.

Emerson, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have gained the most ground among their teammates for a share of the minutes. The Europa League and Carabao Cup gave Emerson the most exposure, opening the door for recent minutes in the Premier League. The two young Englishmen also owe much of their playing time to Europe’s junior competition, with Loftus-Cheek still having the better foothold in the league.

Of the 25 players Sarri has used this season, three have already left – Cesc Fabregas, Alvaro Morata, and Victor Moses – with only one replacement (Gonzalo Higuain). The 25 also includes the short-lived season of Gary Cahill.

Higuain and Cahill are two of the three players currently at Chelsea who have not appeared in all four competitions. Higuain has not been in the Europa League as a Blue, while Cahill was not in the FA Cup not the Premier League. Ethan Ampadu is the third, being entrusted with only the Europa League and FA Cup.

Maurizio Sarri’s decision to concentrate minutes in his eight most trusted players mirrors Antonio Conte’s first season. Conte had 10 players in the top quartile of minutes in 2016/17, while Maurizio Sarri has nine. By contrast, Jose Mourinho (both times) and Carlo Ancelotti had 5-7 players in the top quartile in their respective first seasons.

Mourinho and Ancelotti distributed minutes relatively across three platoons of 5-7 players each, with 11-12 players picking up the scraps in the bottom quartile. Antonio Conte gutted his middle class, having a lot of players with a lot of minutes and a lot of players with a smattering of minutes. Sarri (insert banking system joke here) is soaking his lower class: only seven players are in the bottom 25%.

As a result, Conte and Sarri have smaller overall squads than Mourinho and Ancelotti did in their first seasons. This makes sense for Antonio Conte, as he was the only manager who did not have a European campaign in his first season. He could focus his efforts on the Premier League, which increasingly became the case once Chelsea became title contenders in January.

Sarri, on the other hand, is using three competitions’ worth of players despite being in the fourth, and despite that fourth being the most adverse in terms of schedule and travel.

One reading of the data would be that Maurizio Sarri does in fact rotate his squad, that, yes, he does have his stalwarts, but he makes room for everybody.

Another interpretation is that he over-relies on those stalwarts, and even in the secondary competitions against lower-tier sides or weakened top-tier squads, he does not really trust anybody outside those eight. It’s not necessarily a good thing that Davide Zappacosta and Cesar Azpilicueta have both played in all four competitions.

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Even though Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte had similar distributions of playing minutes, the lack of European football in Conte’s first season is the true outlier among first-year coaches. Mourinho’s and Ancelotti’s willingness to rotate at the top end so heavily while challenging for the Premier League and competing in the Champions League speaks to their confidence. They could develop a wider group of players while trusting the players and their tactics to accomplish their goals.

Sarri, on the other hand, is buying into the laundered Guardiola-ism of only training 10-14 players in his first season. Perhaps he thinks this really is advice from the top simply because he does not know any better, having never been to the top himself. It would be consistent with his overall approach to coaching to rigidly apply something he once heard from an authority.

The test will be how that tail shakes out over the remaining two months of the season. Callum Hudson-Odoi and Davide Zappacosta are on the verge of overtaking Cesc Fabregas for total Chelsea minutes this season, despite Fabregas being gone for two months. Gonzalo Higuain is close, too, but his status leaves this in little doubt.

More doubtful is Ethan Ampadu and the appearance of any other youth player. Ethan Ampadu would need to double his minutes just to match Gary Cahill’s tally.

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But with no domestic cups and no Europa League dead rubbers remaining, and with Sarri not showing any signs of giving a youngster his first-team debut, Ampadu may finish the season closer to Victor Moses than to any of his current teammates.