Sarri's selection gamble

Nick Wright

Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright

Chelsea face Fulham live on Sky Sports on Super Sunday

Last Updated: 27/11/18 11:33am

Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea host Fulham on Sunday

Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea host Fulham on Sunday

Claudio Ranieri was known as the Tinkerman during his time in charge of Chelsea but the present incumbent has a very different attitude towards rotation. As they prepare to go head to head on Super Sunday, Nick Wright assesses the risks of Maurizio Sarri’s reluctance to use his squad.

Chelsea’s unbeaten start to the season came to an emphatic end on Saturday. Maurizio Sarri’s side were defeated 3-1 by Tottenham and the scoreline could have been worse. Sarri admitted Chelsea had been outplayed. Their performance, he added, had been a “disaster”.

The defeat left the Italian with plenty to ponder. Is it time to drop Alvaro Morata? Is N’Golo Kante being played out of position? Does the back four need to be reconfigured? Sarri needs answers but the bigger question is whether he will break with habit in order to find them.

So far this season, Sarri has shown little interest in deviating away from his preferred set-up and personnel. The 4-3-3 formation does not change and the line-up remains largely the same, too. In 13 games, Chelsea have only started 14 players – the joint-fewest in the division together with Wolves.

Only 14 Chelsea players have started in the Premier League this season

Only 14 Chelsea players have started in the Premier League this season

Kepa Arrizabalaga, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, David Luiz, Marcos Alonso, Jorginho and Kante have started every game and that list would probably include Eden Hazard, too, if not for some niggling fitness issues. The remaining three places in the team have been shared between Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic, Pedro, Willian, Morata and Olivier Giroud.

It seems Sarri’s trust does not extend far beyond those 14 players. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been the most involved of the others, but despite earning praise from Sarri for his Europa League performances, he has only played 94 minutes in the Premier League. All three of his substitute appearances have come in games when Chelsea have been leading.

Cesc Fabregas, Victor Moses and Gary Cahill played important roles in Chelsea’s title win in 2017 but together with Davide Zappacosta, they have only played 101 Premier League minutes between them. The situation is bleaker still for Emerson Palmieri and Andreas Christensen, who have not featured at all in the Premier League, while Danny Drinkwater is out of the picture altogether.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Cesc Fabregas have featured sparingly

Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Cesc Fabregas have featured sparingly

The trend extends to Chelsea’s younger players. Ethan Ampadu is an outstanding talent who made an eye-catching breakthrough for club and country last year, but while he has made four senior appearances for Wales this season, he has not featured at all for Chelsea. Callum Hudson-Odoi shone in pre-season but has barely appeared since.

Sarri has made it clear that some of Chelsea’s squad players – namely Moses and Drinkwater – simply do not fit with his playing style. He might also argue that cohesion and consistent selection are key to implementing his philosophy. But this is not the first time he has been reluctant to use his squad and his Napoli tenure highlights the dangers of it.

The first thing to consider is the workload it places on the chosen few.

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In the 2015/16 season, Sarri’s first at Napoli, the Italian hardly altered his team all season, with 11 of his players – four more than any other side – making at least 30 Serie A starts. Beyond those 11 players, no one else at Napoli made more than six.

Napoli’s thrilling football took them to the top of Serie A in February, but Sarri’s selection policy contributed to serious fatigue after that. In the final three months of the campaign, Napoli’s form dipped and they slipped below Juventus. Sarri’s favoured players were running out of steam and the rest of his squad lacked the sharpness to step in.

The issues resurfaced last season. Sarri stuck rigidly to his favoured personnel – once again handing at least 30 Serie A starts to more players (10) than any other side. But having been top of the table in February for the second time in three years – this time by four points – Napoli suffered another late-season slump which cost them the title once again.

Sarri had taken Napoli to new heights, of course – last year’s final points total of 91 was the highest in their history – but the late-season dips raise questions nonetheless. Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis is not exactly known for his measured analysis but perhaps there was an element of truth in his comments on Sarri in July.

Aurelio de Laurentiis accused Maurizio Sarri of being 'one-dimensional'

Aurelio de Laurentiis accused Maurizio Sarri of being ‘one-dimensional’

“It is true I called him a genius but his genius is a bit one-dimensional,” he said, “I saw him play in only one way.”

Sarri’s reluctance to shake things up and rotate his side left many members of his Napoli squad not only lacking sharpness but also feeling disillusioned.

“He has a relationship problem with squad players,” said Italy international Emanuele Giaccherini, who played just 346 minutes of Serie A action in two years under Sarri at Napoli. “For him, there are only 14 or 15 players, but if you want to win things, you have to manage the entire squad. You have to make everyone feel important, but I didn’t feel like that at Napoli.”

The worry for Chelsea is that they now risk a similar situation. Sarri may view squad players such as Cahill, Moses, Drinkwater and Emerson as expendable, but who would sign up to replace them knowing how little game-time they could realistically expect to get?

The bigger concern, though, lies with Chelsea’s younger players. Christensen is an academy graduate once described as a future Chelsea captain by Antonio Conte, but his father, Sten, has already said he will seek a permanent exit in January if his situation doesn’t change.

Loftus-Cheek, who spent last season playing regularly on loan at Crystal Palace, is similarly unlikely to tolerate another season on the fringes at such a crucial juncture of his career, and what of Ampadu and Hudson-Odoi?

Like Loftus-Cheek, Andreas Christensen has had few opportunities

Like Loftus-Cheek, Andreas Christensen has had few opportunities

They are four years younger than Loftus-Cheek and Christensen and Sarri insists their Chelsea futures are bright, but they could be forgiven for casting envious glances at Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson, who are making the most of top-flight opportunity in Germany. Is it any surprise that Hudson-Odoi, an England team-mate of theirs at youth level, is already said to be stalling on a new contract?

Sarri must tread carefully. His Stamford Bridge revolution is ahead of schedule and Chelsea remain in the Champions League places despite Saturday’s defeat at Wembley. But the warning signs are already there. History suggests it might be in everyone’s best interests for his selection policy to be reassessed.

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