At first glance, Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea don’t look vastly different to the side constructed by Antonio Conte. The basic shape is different and the back-three has been replaced by a more conventional four, but the texture of their play appears more or less the same.
The differences are subtle, but they do reveal themselves. Jorginho now delivers possession with more craft from the base of midfield, Eden Hazard’s wider brief has extended his influence further across the pitch and N’Golo Kante has been redeployed in a more advanced position. David Luiz, who was so dramatically cast aside by Conte, has also won a reprieve, with his piercing vertical passing now a feature of the gameplan too.
It all seems to work and, even if its not currently spawning a goal tally that Sarri would like (Chelsea had scored the fewest goals of any side who began Sunday in the top-six), it has certainly set the club on a upswing. Last weekend, Liverpool exposed some lingering fragility and eventually stole the point which their performance deserved, but against the Premier League’s non-elite Chelsea once again look dominant.
That trend continued at Southampton. One of the issues facing Sarri is the lack of a convincing forward. Alvaro Morata’s confidence has bottomed out and, while more competent, Olivier Giroud is a stylistic obstacle for a coach who mined so much value from Dries Mertens at Napoli.
Oddly enough though, it’s that inconvenience which helps to accentuate the side’s evolution. Whereas Conte’s Chelsea were neutered by Diego Costa’s departure and often looked so lost without their focal point, Sarri’s iteration have shown themselves to be capable of playing around the same issue. They look busier behind the front-line. Hazard is a world-class pest, of course, and Matteo Kovacic and Ross Barkley have brought a theoretical level of craft which didn’t exist before, but – with possession – the ideas seem fresher and the angles craftier.
Conveniently, that hasn’t arrived at the cost of what was the great strength of Conte’s title-winning team. As they showed at St Mary’s, they remain capable of locking their opponents in their own half for long periods. However, whereas its predecessor tended to wait for that pressure to create a fracture, this Chelsea looks more proactive. Southampton are currently bereft of confidence, at home they look particularly vulnerable, but it was the visitors’ speed of thought rather than any self-inflicted wounds which proved the difference. In the first-half alone, they created twelve different shooting opportunities, ten of which were inside the penalty box.
Hazard was his usual, vibrant self. He scored the game’s opening goal, lifting the ball classily over Alex McCarthy, but there were signs of health elsewhere too. Barkley, who snagged the ball high up the field and cut the defence to create that goal, had his most assured performance for his new club. He has much to learn and it’s still valid to wonder whether his mind is quite right for the highest pressure games, but he certainly now looks like he fit the tapestry.
He scored his first goal for the club, too. It was more attributable to Southampton’s hopeless defending of a set-piece, during which they somehow allowed Giroud five yards of space in their own box, but Barkley still anticipated the volleyed cross sharply and made no mistake from under the crossbar. It may not have been a special moment, but it was still a significant one for a player who, at this point of his career, needs to know that he can contribute under a big club’s bright lights.
If there is a Chelsea weakness, it still lies in defence. While Luiz’s presence diversifies the type of defensive exits available, his impulsive style of play creates a trade-off. Before Chelsea took the lead, Danny Ings should have opened the scoring himself. Ryan Bertrand broke into the kind of space not usually allowed by a back-four and his cross should really have been converted from three yards out. There may not have been any definitive Luiz error within that sequence, but Ings ultimately volleyed over from well within his zone of responsibility.
It wasn’t an isolated moment either, because the second-half began with a similar passage of play. This time, Bertrand himself volleyed over with Antonio Rudiger scrambling for position. Centre-back pairings depend on chemistry, so maybe this is an issue which will be cured by time and greater understanding, but Southampton are a fairly impotent side and yet, with better finishing, they might have scored twice and made this far less comfortable than it ultimately was.
It’s a churlish complaint, though. All assessments of Chelsea at this stage should remember that Sarri was appointed late in the summer, that he didn’t have the benefit of a full pre-season, and that, just like the situation at the other end of the pitch, he is working with inherited players.
But whether those issues prove to be long term or not, it is interesting to note the effect of this coaching change. Beyond the literal differences it has provoked, the altered mood is fascinating. Appointing lofty ideologues is, of course, the exclusive luxury of wealthy clubs, but the early months of the cycle which usually follows are always interesting. It’s the moment at which the canvas is at its blankest and when, typically, players are being instructed and animated by their collective potential.
That’s where Chelsea are. All the post-Conte acrimony has melted away and, in its place, energy and enthusiasm for Sarri’s methods is bubbling up all over the field. In injury-time, with the game won and the visiting fans ole’ing, Hazard split the defence one last time and Morata, defying his barren self-belief, stabbed a third goal over McCarthy and into the net.
It doesn’t always, but change can sometimes cure everything. At Chelsea, it’s breathed new life into a team who, without question, should be considered a contender.