Maurizio Sarri's charisma, poetic football an intriguing move for Chelsea
Maurizio Sarri might be Italian, like his predecessor at Chelsea, but there are few other similarities between him and Antonio Conte.
The brand of football Sarri deployed in his three seasons at Napoli (and, before that, at little Empoli) is starkly different. Conte meanwhile lived every game as if it was some sort of medieval epic, filled with gritted teeth, suffering and wild-eyed intensity. Even when he won -- and, lest we forget, he picked up a Premier League title and an FA Cup in two seasons at Stamford Bridge -- the look at the final whistle was initially more about relief than jubilation.
Sarri's football is more poetic, intoxicating and generally easy on the eye. It's based on possession, pressing and, above all, the coordinated, precise movement of his players. His mantra is the basic premise that it's easier and more effective to pass the ball into the space where your teammate will be if you already know he's going to be there rather than having to look and assess the situation. That can happen only when you have a well-drilled side with near-perfect chemistry, and Sarri tries to build it through intense and never-ending repetition in training.
Then again, while managers have philosophies and ideas, it's worth remembering that these are predicated upon the players in the squad and the type of club they're managing.
Sarri replaces Conte as Chelsea manager
Conte at Juventus had an evident objective -- win, and win now -- and he had quality players. Conte with Italy had arguably the least gifted squad in half a century and therefore he adjusted his game accordingly, becoming more schematic and blue-collar. As for Conte at Chelsea? While closer to the Juventus end of the spectrum, it was something of a hybrid: He still preached discipline but equally, he allowed for flourishes from the right individuals (well, mostly from Eden Hazard).
Sarri's Napoli might have been hailed by Pep Guardiola as one of the best sides he's seen in Europe, and two second-place finishes in Serie A, one of them coming with one of the highest points totals in history, tell their own story. But Chelsea is a wholly different challenge.
For a start, while Sarri had some outstanding players at Napoli (Kalidou Koulibaly, Faouzi Ghoulam, Dries Mertens, Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne to name just a few) the vast majority became stars under his tutelage. They arrived hungry and he sold them on the idea that if they followed him, they'd go to the next level. (There are some exceptions, of course: Pepe Reina, Raul Albiol and Gonzalo Higuain come to mind, though the last departed after just one hugely successful campaign and the other two were looking to bounce back after some tricky seasons.)
At Chelsea, Sarri will be dealing with a different caliber of player and, crucially, with guys who have already experienced success doing things a different way. Every manager needs to get his squad to buy into what he's preaching, but that's easier to do when you're leading folks who have never won at the highest level, rather than guys like the squad at Chelsea, most of whom experienced success under Conte and Jose Mourinho. It's easier still when you arrive as a household name who looks the part, like the aforementioned pair.
With his glasses, rumpled demeanor and insistence on wearing ill-fitting tracksuits, the 59-year-old Sarri looks more like the eccentric gym teacher who time forgot. And his profile, clearly, doesn't match the other two.
Some also question whether he can manage a squad this size. At Napoli, Sarri used a core of only 12 or 13 players. That not only left the others unhappy, but it also meant that when a regular was unavailable, there was often a major loss of chemistry. And chemistry matters tremendously given the type of football he plays.
That said, Sarri's underdog story is compelling. This is a guy who never played professionally but was so obsessed with becoming a manager that he juggled a full-time job (he worked in a bank and sometimes traveled internationally) with amateur coaching gigs, starting at the very lowest grassroots levels. He won and dazzled everywhere he went throughout his native Tuscany, and it was only after he turned 40 that he abandoned his job in banking and began to scale the football pyramid.
In a world where most top-flight managers either get fast-tracked because of their time as ex-pros or, in any case, never need to hold down a real job, Sarri's sacrifices are an inspiration to every young coach who thinks he deserves a shot and is ready to walk the walk.
Beyond that, there is little question that the protracted Conte/Sarri succession saga this summer has robbed Chelsea of valuable time, as does the absence of a recruitment specialist since the departure of Michael Emenalo to Monaco last January. The Premier League transfer window shuts in less than a month, and in that time, the club need to make some big decisions, as will Sarri. And he'll have to do it while a number of his players are still on vacation or, worse, still in Russia.
Extending the contracts of Hazard and Thibaut Courtois must be a priority even if only to get full value in case of a sale. (In that sense he'll be hoping Mertens, whom he helped take to another level at Napoli, will provide positive references.)
If, as we imagine, Chelsea will shift back to his preferred back four, Sarri will need to figure out where Cesar Azpilicueta fits and whether Victor Moses needs to go back to playing as an orthodox winger. Sarri will also want to figure out whether Alvaro Morata has a place in this project and whether he wants to be there -- he's been long linked with a move elsewhere, but that was in the Conte era -- and he'll need to quickly come to terms with what will likely be a reduced budget at Chelsea, because that's what happens when you spend more than $30 million on manager payoffs and you miss out on the Champions League in two of three seasons.
Then again, beneath Sarri's frumpy exterior there's a genuine charisma that, together with his scintillating football, managed to conquer Naples, which is not an easy task. If at Stamford Bridge he gets a fraction of the love he received from the players at his previous job, he'll be well placed to succeed.
There's one other thing that separates him from the vast majority of his colleagues.
"This is the only job in the world I'd happily do for free," Sarri said of being coach. Others, of course, have claimed the same in the past, but very few have, literally, done it for free for more than a decade in the belief that one day they might hit the big time. And now, he has.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.