Romping to ridiculous score-lined victories, grinding out games by the narrowest of margins, attacking with flair and freedom and with a formidable rear-guard to match; all of these components create the formula of a team whose equation equals titles.
A key ingredient is missing from this method, the ability to rescue a result after falling behind to your opponents. This has proved to be one rare element Maurizio Sarri has yet to discover as Chelsea’s chief sorcerer.
For the second occasion this season, Tottenham Hotspur have masterminded the Blues, their recent trickery being conjured up in the first leg of last night’s Carabao Cup semi-final.
As Mauricio Pochettino’s side smartly rode out a narrow 1-0 win, it greatly emphasised their bitter rivals’ Achilles heel of coming from a goal behind. Only twice this season have Chelsea conceded first yet ended victoriously at the final whistle.
Both in the month of September, a 4-1 cruising against Cardiff City glossed over the fact that Sol Bamba put the Welsh outfit in front at Stamford Bridge. The other came in this competition, as late Eden Hazard heroics saw off Liverpool after Anfield erupted due to Daniel Sturridge putting the Reds in the lead.
Here highlights the issues clearly circling Sarri in his first stint at Stamford Bridge, ones needing to be erased if they’re to keep up with the sprint Spurs are beginning to set ahead of them.
Chelsea fans demanded more of the ball after Antonio Conte’s defensive-minded approach and their wish has been met this term. They shared 58% of the possession against Tottenham on Tuesday evening. However, as the cliché goes, the only statistic that matters is the scoreline, which was not in favour of the visitors.
Does this show Sarri is without a plan B? His team began on the front foot, with an added potency going forward until Harry Kane swept away a penalty to put Spurs ahead. Excessive forward passing is the mantra of Sarri, yet Spurs’ dogged defence left the visitors’ efforts ultimately meaningless.
A change of personnel prior to kick-off did provide a certain style alteration, with young prodigy Callum Hudson-Odoi offering great width to the Chelsea team which has often been absent. The standout performer on the night, his expert deliveries searched for a striker in the middle; there was none.
Another key area of weakness, which all others inferior to Chelsea have figured out, is the lack of an old-fashioned number nine. Someone like Kane for instance, or Diego Costa. Instead, the stubbornness of Sarri stuck with Hazard as a false forward, prevailing with little substance.
Still unveiling velvet touches, sewing play together, the brilliant Belgian required an option in front of him when he drove at Tottenham’s’ backline. Shadows were often his only out ball. Leading the way with goals and performances this campaign, Hazard will be desperate for another to help him carry the burden.
Olivier Giroud eventually made a cameo role 79 minutes into the tie and a background figure he was left to be. Alvaro Morata didn’t feature through injury, but even he hasn’t scored a league goal since November. January is all about resolutions, and Sarri must resolve this glaring issue.
With the addition of a ‘fox in the box’ finisher, Chelsea would have the strategy of going direct or crossing from wide areas instead of constantly searching for the ultimate goal to be repeated on highlight reels for years. Exactly how Spurs exploited their guests on the night, a direct ball from Toby Alderweireld unleashed Kane alone with Kepa Arrizabalaga as the goalkeeper conceded a spot kick.
Jorginho, the lynchpin of Sarri’s philosophy, has the ability to dictate the tempo of proceedings through a six-yard pass. His reluctance in attempting to turn opposition defences with a ‘route one’ approach often leaves a predictable outcome to a move. One figure who had that in his repertoire is being allowed to walk out the door, as Cesc Fabregas looks set for Monaco.
Still in contention for four trophies come the end of Sarri’s first term in charge, this month, in particular, seems especially poignant. The Italian has to look for alternatives in winning football matches, with fresh faces the first port of call, if he is to collect his first silverware in senior management.
By Nathaniel Kay