Chelsea: Sarri’s cultists don’t understand preseason, along with everything else

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Maurizio Sarri, Head Coach of Chelsea looks on during the FA Community Shield between Manchester City and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on August 5, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Maurizio Sarri, Head Coach of Chelsea looks on during the FA Community Shield between Manchester City and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on August 5, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) /

Maurizio Sarri has had eight months, a handful of preseason games and 49 competitive matches to work with his players. But according to his always erudite devotees, his abbreviated preseason is the insurmountable cause of his continued struggles.

Among the many ignominies Chelsea reserved for their most accomplished coaches was letting Antonio Conte take the first week of preseason training because they were too disorganized to sack him before players reported to Cobham. Conte, ever the professional, put the players through their first week of fitness tests as though he was not a dead man coaching. Chelsea sacked him at the end of the week, and Maurizio Sarri led his first session the following Monday.

The consequences of Chelsea’s delay linger to this day. Every issue Maurizio Sarri has had with his players’ fitness, understanding of his system or ability to execute Sarriball traces back to the truncated preseason, which compromised the entire project he was hired to fulfill. Or so goes the narrative.

On second thought, narrative is too generous towards Maurizio Sarri’s cultists. Narratives have a plot, character, themes, structure and developmental arcs. The Sarritologists’ idiom is a toddler’s point-and-say book. “Doggy!” “Horse!” “Regista!” and now, “Preseason!”

As with all things Sarritological, we’ll work through the irony one layer at a time. Maurizio Sarri knew he would be coming to Chelsea weeks, if not months, in advance. From the time Napoli’s season ended in May he could start preparing to take over at Stamford Bridge. Even though Chelsea did not make things official and allow him to get set up at Cobham and get acquainted with his players until July 16, he had about two full months to prepare.

Antonio Conte had no such buffer nor clear timeline. Conte came to Chelsea straight from Italy’s national team. His start date at Stamford Bridge was determined by Italy’s exit from the Euro 2016 tournament. Had Italy reached the finals, he would have started some time around, oh, July 16.

Italy exited in the quarterfinals, on July 2. Nine days later, Antonio Conte took his first session with the Blues. Those nine days were the entirety of his window to recover and relax from the demands and emotion of the tournament, relocate to England and prepare for that first week. Whereas Sarri had two months of only nominal obligations to Napoli in which to prepare for Chelsea, Conte was in the midst of a major tournament for the two months – minus those nine days – before starting his job in west London.

The second irony is how much less important preseason is to Maurizio Sarri than his peers and predecessors. Conte treats the season as an intensive bootcamp, using two-a-day sessions to rapidly condition his players for the season ahead. The players are pushed to their limit psychologically and physically so they can withstand the psychological and physical demands of competing for multiple trophies from August to May.

Maurizio Sarri, on the other hand, uses the preseason to build the fun and warmth around the club. Smiles and rapid-fire 7v0 pass sequences abound, as does ketchup in the canteen. Whereas Conte comes across as a drill instructor, Antonio Rudiger compared Sarri to a school-teacher.

Third, Sarri’s coaching methods require less time to learn than those of coaches like Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp.

Sarri is simply asking players to learn his circuits. There may be a lot of circuits and each circuit may have many individual steps, but it is still the relatively simple task-oriented progression from conscious learning to unconscious competence. Hence the emphasis on repetition.

Moreover, Sarri’s circuits and his overall organization are entirely conventional for the Premier League. Antonio Conte has a similar approach, but because the team and the players had not played with three centre-backs and wing-backs, they had much more to learn – including the fundamental concept – and needed more time to learn it. Chelsea’s swash-buckling 13-game win streak in 2016/17 compared to this season’s rapid predictability and easy neutralization speaks to the the novelty of one and the conventionality of the other, despite the pedagogical similarities.

For those players who had played under coaches like Mourinho or Guardiola, Sarri’s methods were particularly simple.

Mourinho taught the adaptations to his base organization that allowed him to make so many highly-effective substitutions and formation changes late in the game. Mourinho instilled the technical and tactical excellence that defines his team.

Guardiola’s framework is even more extreme. But both managers teach decision-making within the infinite contexts that a game may present: recognizing spatial patterns, varying the timing of actions, solving the problems of the game. Sarri teaches a very finite number of contexts in which his players may play.

If any coach physical or tactical demands could survive a shortened preseason, it is Maurizio Sarri. Yet only Sarri has disciples using preseason to excuse his shortcoming.

Finally, and this would be an irony only to Alanis Morissette, the five days were not the only modification to Sarri’s preseason. He also had players trickling back from the World Cup into August, with key players like Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante being among the last to return.

light. More. Chelsea could turn Jorginho into a productive No. 10 once Maurizio Sarri leaves

So what. So bloody hell what. Which top-six manager didn’t have some their best players miss some portion of preseason because of the World Cup? How many managers from across the Premier League went through preseason without one or two internationals still in Russia? None and nearly all, respectively.

Once again, if he can not handle the basic shared circumstances of the job, he should not have the job. He would be a truly special snowflake if, alone among all the top and mid-table coaches in Europe, criticism of his was softened because he went through preseason with some of his players out on World Cup duty. And those five days at the beginning.

Even if we take the most Sarri-friendly reading on all these factors, none of that should matter now. Even if Chelsea denied Sarri the most important five days of preseason, he had the most players out for the longest amount of time because the World Cup and his system was as complicated as his pre-literate boot-lickers say it is, those effects would still be fully diluted by now.

dark. Next. Chelsea will lose Hudson-Odoi unless they speak football and not finance

Maurizio Sarri has had eight months and nearly 50 competitive games to train, to teach, to condition. Even if that is not enough to deliver some final product, it is more than enough to show progress. Can he show progress with this squad as a whole or individual players? By his own admissions, no. On that we can agree with him.