Pep Guardiola is a long-time admirer of Maurizio Sarri, and before he took over as Chelsea manager in July, Guardiola gave him some advice. The pair went for lunch with their shared hero Arrigo Sacchi, and Guardiola told Sarri how difficult it is to come to the Premier League and try to impose a new style of football on a playing squad.
So difficult, in fact, that it is only worth trying to improve a small group – “14 players” – because trying to work with a large squad is almost impossible. In that first City season Guardiola soon realised he could not improve every player City had, so had to focus on a narrow group.
“Guardiola told me the first season in England is really very difficult,” he said. “For him, it’s impossible to improve the first season 20 players. He told me, in the first season, you have to work only on 14 players otherwise you are in trouble. You need too much time to improve all the squad. In England, it’s really very difficult.”
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There are clear parallels between Guardiola’s first season at City, 2016-17, and Chelsea this year. Both managers inherited a squad with some talented older players and some promising youngsters and then tried to impose a style of play that was completely unfamiliar to them. Both sides had a strong start as the players quickly picked up the basics of what they were being asked to do, before levelling off in November and December as they tried to learn the more difficult details.
City only finished in third position in 2016-17, 15 points behind Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, and when asked what he had learned from studying the team he will face on Saturday, Sarri said that he would “need a season just to understand the real situation here”.
“Every history is different,” Sarri said. “You learn, of course, that the Premier League is a fantastic championship, but it’s really very difficult. Difficult because every match is difficult. Every match, if you are able to win, is very expensive from the mental and physical point of view. You have to play every three days. You have no time to work or improve the team, so it’s really a very difficult situation. You need a season just to understand the real situation here.”
Clearly Sarri needs time. To hear him talk about how he is trying to change the mentality at Chelsea, and admitting that progress will not be linear, is to hear a man who knows he is embarking on a grand and ambitious project. It took Guardiola one year to get City right and even then he could always count on the patience of the club, not least given that it is run by his two old friends Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain. But Chelsea is different, and the prospects for open-ended patience from upstairs are not as good.
Sarri knows this better than anyone and he did not want to be drawn when asked about how patient the club would be with him this year. But he did say that if Guardiola was denied that first year of patience in City, then the world would not have been blessed with the 100-point team they got the following year. “What happens if Guardiola had no time in City? Maybe the best team in the world [would not have been] City in the last year. I don’t know, it’s not my problem. My problem is to improve my players, to solve the situation, to solve problems, to try to gain a lot of points. Then there is the club that will decide what is better for them.”
Although Guardiola also had hundreds of millions to spend after his first year, to buy players like Ederson, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, to upgrade on the players who could not play his way. Whether Sarri will get that much backing next year is unclear, and he said he would rather just get one player to improve the team than a whole load of them.
“We need to work, we need to improve, we need to understand very well the style of playing,” he said. “We need to change the mentality, not because the old mentality was bad. But it’s not suitable with the new way of playing. Then, after all this, maybe you do need one player. But the market is really very important when you understand that you need only one player in one position for changing the team. But you cannot think that you can buy 11 new players without problems.”
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