- Serie A/Scudetto (1): 2019/20 (Juventus)
- Europa League (1): 2018/19 (Chelsea)
Sarriball. It just has a 2017/2018 tinge to it doesn’t it? Sarri, the man known for smoking so many cigarettes it was widely memed about, had Empoli playing some great football even if their position on the league table did not reflect their on-pitch performances (for further reading, Graham Potter’s post can be found here.)
He was snapped up by Napoli and Gli Azzurri thrived - never ending the season below third, and in 17/18 they put up one of the most concrete threats for the Scudetto against perennial, seemingly annual designated winners, Juventus.
Sarri found further success leading the Old Lady and winning the Scudetto himself - but his torrid time at Chelsea, and lackluster, autopilot of a season at Juventus had tarnished any potential of Sarriball having staying power.
But what is Sarriball?
Sarriball has its origins in Napoli, as the Italian manager employed different tactics at Empoli. Sarri is a massive proponent of a 4-3-3 possession based system that, on the ball, looks to invite the opposition to press and open space behind them. Sarri’s Napoli and Chelsea teams would look to beat the press with two ball playing centerbacks - who could either accurately pass the ball into spaces left open behind the opposition, or calmly play out the back - and a deeplying center mid, taking on the role of a regista, to find vertical passings lanes. At both teams, Jorginho was entrusted with this role. The fullbacks would push up to create space in the defensive third, while the other two center midfielders would shuttle back and forth up the pitch as needed.
Once in the final third, attackers wrought havoc by occupying the vertical half spaces in between the opposition players. At Napoli, Mertens and Hamsik thrived in disrupting the opposition’s defensive formation by finding pockets of space and creating moments of magic in between them to score goals or set up their teammates (in the 2015-16 season, Napoli finished third, but their strike Gonzalo Higuain was the Capocannoniere with 36 league goals.)
His teams have a propensity to attack down the left side, and all have heavily involved a left sided inside forward that has the freedom to roam - Insigne at Napoli, Hazard at Chelsea, and even Ronaldo at Juventus.
Defensively, the 4-3-3 turns into a 4-5-1. Sarri employs a high press which squeezes the opposition into their own defensive third, demanding aggressive & energetic ball winners in the team, not to mention a fair amount of aggressive tackles to stifle any sort of counterattack. The wingers are absolutely expected to put in a defensive shift in his system, something that caused problems with him and Ronaldo at Juventus.
There’s no doubt about it, when Sarriball works, it works. Insigne and Hazard were instrumental to the success that Sarri found at both clubs (some might say minimal at Chelsea) but overall, Napoli played some phenomenal football during Sarri’s reign. His track record of winning trophies is... there, which is of course more than Spurs can say, but it’s hardly magnificent - although given Mourinho’s tenure at Tottenham Hotspur, surely that’s hardly a prerequisite.
Perhaps the two biggest strengths that could bode well for Spurs are the attractive football that Sarriball promises + the fact that some players are well suited for his system. Heung Min Son fits the bill as a mercurial, left sided inside forward that Sarri has leaned on so much in the past. Harry Kane is the goal machine he needs up front, while Gio Lo Celso and perhaps Hojbjerg can play the shuttling roles in the middle of the pitch.
What would be most exciting would be Ndombele as a regista. Although Sarri rarely expects the player in this role to dribble out of danger, Ndombele has a phenomenal ability to progress the ball from deep in his own half - best exhibited in his last season at Lyon.
What if Sarriball doesn’t work? Well, then you get a sacking. Apart from some good displays that ultimately led to a Europa League trophy, Sarriball failed to take off at Chelsea. There were numerous problems for the Chelsea side, but most importantly opposing teams realized that Sarriball necessitates an opposition to press for it to work. If a team keeps two banks of four in a compact manner, the half spaces that Sarri’s teams love to exploit are simply crowded out.
Moreover, two ball playing centerbacks that can rake long passes are effectively made null when the opposition, by affording them all the time in the world, leave little space behind them.
Specifically for Tottenham, some players would fit into his system but others wouldn’t. Players like Lucas and Bergwijn wouldn’t get a look into the side as Sarri demands close control and good link up play from his forwards.
Harry Kane, for all his attacking prowess, simply does not press anymore. Sarri might run into the same problem he ran into with Ronaldo at Juve, and essentially have to try to rework the entire system so the press does not immediately crumble.
The real nail in the coffin is Tottenham’s centerbacks. Sarri needs a strong, athletic pair that can keep up with counterattacks, squeeze the opposition into their own half, be comfortable on the ball, and execute long passes when needed. Currently, no Spurs centerback can do all of this, and although Alderweireld is certainly the best candidate, that’s only half of the equation (not to mention he’s in his twillight years.)
Finally, Sarri lacks flexibility. He couldn’t find an alternative to his 4-3-3 that worked at Chelsea. At Juve, he shifted to a 4-4-2 diamond, but that didn’t produce the best results either - although Juve did win the Scudetto they hardly looked as dominant as they had in the past.
Likeliness of being hired
Not likely. Alasdair Gold has already said Sarri is not under consideration for the Tottenham management role. What’s more, after the Mourinho debacle, imagine Levy taking Chelsea’s sloppy seconds twice...
Grade if Hired: D
Sarri would be on a free, which is probably the only reason he was linked with Spurs in the first place. Given his Chelsea history, knack for running into tactical brick walls, and his habit of picking fights with his players when things don’t work out, it seems reminiscent of a recent Spurs manager - and Spurs won’t be looking to take a step back.