It is bizarre to think that Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri was about to embark on his first ever season in the top flight as recently as 2014-15. The former bank manager had spent years developing his career in the lower leagues before winning promotion to Serie A with Empoli the season before, and his fast-track ascent to one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs has all happened since.
Sarri – born in Naples but raised in Tuscany – was a natural choice for Empoli owner Fabrizio Corsi, a boss who was very much in tune with this small club’s ethos. Supporters of this team situated just 12 miles away from Florence may be few in number, but they pride themselves as being one big family, with all of their main sponsors deliberately hailing from the region.
The now-famous tactician had been brought by Empoli sporting director Marcello Carli in summer 2012, following his sacking from Lega Pro side Sorrento FC the previous December.
“I chose Sarri because I remembered a madman on the benches of Sangiovannese and Sansovino,” the official revealed to La Gazzetta dello Sport in 2017. “He was a madman who made me feel real emotion. It didn't matter if he came from a series of sackings.
"He's a champion, a true friend,” Carli continued. “But at least three or four times we almost came to blows. I'm talking about real punches. He's a clever big head.”
Such fiery behavior is the other kind of end product that originates from Sarri’s desire for absolute perfectionism, the reverse side of the coin to the beautiful football that now graces the pitch at Stamford Bridge.
After honing his precise style at Empoli, the Blues won promotion to the top flight with Sarri with at the end of the 2013-14 campaign, the boss developing the likes of Daniele Rugani, Mario Rui, Simone Verdi, and Elseid Hysaj who were all part of his squad. They may be household names for all those who currently follow Italian top-flight football, but back then – just like Sarri himself – they were relative unknowns.
Yet the coach was about to get noticed by Napoli as his superb work kept Empoli up the following year, a 15th-place finish impressive indeed as so many newly promoted sides end up going straight back to where they came from in their first term in Serie A. Former Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone fired in 10 goals that year, but it was a different player who benefited from the nurturing of the coach.
Riccardo Saponara had worked with Sarri at the Tuscan side in the early days of the boss’ tenure, the coach having converted the youngster from his original position as a winger to a new role as a No. 10. The player’s form from that moment brought about a move to AC Milan, but having not benefited from much playing time with the Rossoneri, he arrived back at Empoli midway through their first season in Serie A.
Back with his mentor, his seven goals and three assists in 17 starts became critical for Empoli’s survival.
“We wanted Saponara back precisely for this,” Sarri revealed after the forward scored a brace versus Sassuolo in March. “We felt he could revive his campaign with us. Unfortunately he arrived without good fitness levels and when he did get better he caught chickenpox, so that slowed down his development.
“He is a very sensitive lad, so these two goals will really boost his confidence. I am convinced he can have a great end to the season.”
Sarri had loved his work in developing young talent such as Saponara at Empoli, but he would make the decision to move to the city of his birth when Napoli came calling at the end of his first season in Serie A.
“Perhaps there is a strong prejudice against me,” the tactician admitted after winning the Golden Hourglass prize in 2015. “Some believe that I'm a coach who can only handle Empoli and other clubs of the like. But every coach must work to prove otherwise, though to be honest I could stay with Empoli for life, because I'm very happy here.”
By making that difficult choice to leave Empoli, Maurizio Sarri proved had the necessary ambition and the drive within himself, his bravery and coaching ability having since taken him all the way to the Premier League.