“Napoli are spectacular and his brand of football is a joy to watch. Often a coach is judged on wins, but you’ve also got to look at the shape as well as the substance.” -Pep Guardiola
“Sarriball is like an orchestra.” -Gianfranco Zola, assistant manager and former Chelsea player
“He really is a genius, he sees things others don’t see.” -Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly
A sampling of quotes from some of the biggest names in the sport offers a taste of the impression first-year Chelsea skipper Maurizio Sarri has made by way of his tactical system coined “Sarriball” and “Sarrismo.” Offensively, his framework emphasizes possession and short passes in high tempo to advance the ball forward. From a defensive perspective, it relies on compactness, maintaining a high line, and coordinated pressing to win the ball through forcing mistakes by the opposition.
American soccer’s poster boy Christian Pulisic will soon join forces with the Italian, assuming Chelsea holds onto their tactician through next season. News broke on January 2 that the 20-year-old would be joining Chelsea for a fee of £58 million ($73 million), easily eclipsing the record of €20 that John Anthony Brooks set with Wolfsburg in 2017. Pulisic also became Chelsea’s third-most expensive player, and he will head to London following a loan back to Borussia Dortmund for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.
Sarri’s Path To Stamford Bridge
The English-speaking world scrambled to learn as much as possible about Sarri’s tactics when news broke over the summer that he would replace Antonio Conte at Chelsea. Many avid Serie A followers harnessed a smug, “we knew all along” attitude and proceeded to enlighten fans of the English club of what they could expect in the 2018-19 season, but it was a welcomed bridge between fanbases who might not interact otherwise.
The banker-turned-full time coach took the calcio world by storm, rising through the ranks until revolutionizing both Empoli and Napoli. The man known for chain-smoking on the sidelines and in-game scribbling on a notepad took Napoli toe-to-toe with Juventus while playing a brand of football right up there with the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona in terms of artistic expression and output.
The topic of squad rotation/depth raised questions for both Napoli fans concerning their managerial predecessor and the Chelsea faithful learning more about Sarri. The most seething critique directed at him was that his lack of squad rotation ultimately cost Napoli their first title since the days of Maradona. Did he not fully acknowledge the need to keep a squad fresh while competing on multiple fronts and trying to take down Serie A’s Goliath? Had he no faith in the Partenopei’s backups? Whatever the case, the new setting would at least provide the opportunity to experiment with different lineups and utilize more pieces than he was able to during his time in Naples.
Sarriball was an immediate success by most accounts, as the aesthetic matched results in the early stages of Chelsea’s campaign. The players were clearly enacting a looser, more free-flowing style of play and the unbeaten run was hard to argue against (their first loss did not come until Nov. 24 at the hands of Tottenham).
However, in recent weeks the Blues have experienced difficulties in front of goal and points have been slipping away. Questions remain concerning how the club will address areas of need during the rest of the January window and over the summer, but the news of Pulisic’s acquisition has American soccer supporters chomping at the bit to see their golden boy in Chelsea blue. The Pulisic deal immediately guarantees both quality and added depth in the Chelsea attack, a great problem to have for any manager.
Pulisic Powers Forward
Pulisic’s creativity, vision, flair, and confidence with the ball at his feet — qualities not typically associated with American players — have certainly come to the forefront thanks to his time in Germany. While some argue that the aforementioned characteristics are innate and are the type ”you can’t teach,” so they say, the young attacker has certainly benefitted from taking his talents across the pond to challenge himself and develop with some of the best in the business.
Pulisic enjoyed a breakout year in 2016 with Dortmund and the U.S. men’s national team, breaking a host of records in the process; 2017-18 also brought plenty of first-team action as the winger appeared in 42 matches across all club competitions. Pulisic was one of the few bright spots down the stretch of the U.S. men’s World Cup qualifying campaign, one that ultimately ended in colossal failure.
The 2018-19 Bundesliga season has yielded a bit of a different story. Dortmund have been the team to beat in the league and currently sit six points above Bayern Munich in second. Pulisic has struggled to find playing time alongside talented young wingers Jacob Bruun Larsen and Jadon Sancho. With multiple sources linking Pulisic to Liverpool, Chelsea turned out to be the preferred destination for the man who has been surveying his options. Despite any possible frustrations this season, the direct loan back to Dortmund grants the chance to finish his time in Germany on a positive note and send a final message to doubters that he can secure significant playing time at Chelsea.
Success in Sarri’s system requires concentration, skill, work ethic, and the ability to combine well with teammates, all qualities Pulisic has exhibited over the last two years. On Saturday at Dortmund’s training camp the American star offered his thoughts on why he elected to join the Blues of London and how his playing style can gel with the existing structure.
“I’ve seen their style. I’ve always appreciated how they’ve played football, and it’s really nice how they play now, with their new coach. It fits me very well.”
A Sarri quote on the heels of the Pulisic deal revealed the disconnect that sometimes exists between a club and its manager, but what he did have to say did nothing to damper excitement about the American’s potential role in the squad when he arrives.
“I didn’t know anything about Pulisic yesterday. The club asked my opinion about him one month ago. My opinion was positive and today I’ve known that the deal is done.”
The man on his maiden managerial voyage in England will soon have to know a lot more about the 20-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, and supporters of Chelsea and the U.S. men’s national team alike will be hoping that it proves to be a match worthy of the record fee.
Wesley is a graduate of the University of Alabama (BA) and the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (MA). He currently works in youth soccer in Austin, Texas, and can be found on Twitter.