Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea face sternest test yet from Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool
Sarri has inspired Eden Hazard revival at Chelsea, but Jurgen Klopp - man with whom Sarri shares much - will bring to London high-pressing blitz at Premier League weekend
Jurgen Klopp and Maurizio Sarri had plenty to say to one another in their brief greeting ahead of Wednesday’s League Cup tie at Anfield.
They were surprisingly chatty, animated for men who were strangers as competitors, managers who have somehow come together to the elite end of the game with no previous duels. Short on head-to-heads they may be, but they seem long on mutual respect.
“Wow, what a manager he is,” enthused Klopp, whose Liverpool take the Premier League’s only 100 per cent record after six matches to Sarri’s Chelsea on Saturday - a summit showdown nuanced a little by the 2-1 League Cup win - from behind, which Sarri’s less-than-full-strength XI achieved against a Klopp side with several key men rested.
Wow, indeed, as Klopp did not quite exclaim after the final whistle, but almost everybody else who had witnessed Eden Hazard’s dazzling winning goal did.
Of the many impressive boxes Sarri has ticked since began his work at Chelsea the finessing of Hazard is the highlight.
The Belgian has long been his club’s best asset, key to the title triumph of 2017 under Antonio Conte, and there is no finer player in the Europa League this season. Being consigned to that competition is one of the reasons why Hazard felt some itchy feet two months ago, knowing that Real Madrid - among others - want to see him wearing their colours in the Uefa Champions League.
But Hazard and Sarri have been a happy partnership so far.
Wednesday’s goal was Hazard's sixth in seven games under the new manager, and three of those he has started on the bench. To Hazard, the new boss is distinguished from the old boss in as far as the player feels liberated and supported in his attacking responsibilities.
Conte’s later days as Chelsea manager, grumpily and unsuccessfully chasing fourth spot in the table as the defence of the league title crumpled, featured Hazard alone up front at times, back to goal, ankles bruised by suffocating challenges.
Running with the ball in front of him suits Hazard best, and though Sarri hardly needed to be a clairvoyant to recognise that, he has designed his Chelsea to irrigate those channels for Hazard.
Sarri makes the observation that Klopp’s redesign of Liverpool is great deal more advanced than his at Chelsea, by at least 12 months. While that is hard to contest, there are more seasoned champions at Stamford Bridge than there are at Anfield.
Many of them are being challenged to explore new ways of expressing themselves. Conte’s big reboot, the system that propelled a fragile side to a table-topping one, was the introduction of a back three with wing-backs.
Sarri has reversed that, asked of David Luiz that he marshall a back four and that Marcos Alonso maintains his appetite for gallops down the left flank from a full-back's, not a wing-back's, starting position.
As for N’Golo Kante, there is a surprising new role for the most respected holding midfielder in English football, the World Cup-winning interceptor.
Kante plays in more advanced territory under Sarri, partly because the sage Italian manager has reserved a deep, central midfield playmaking berth for Jorginho, who came with Sarri from Napoli in the summer. Is is also partly because he sees a value for Kante’s energy and stamina closer to the opposition goal.
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All managers new to the Premier League are scanned for their revolutionary ideas. In Sarri’s case, the scrutiny is more eager because his backstory is so intriguing, the former banker who only reached top-division football - Serie A - four years ago.
He has never overseen a major title, and has joined the Premier League upper storey on the basis of his dynamic influence over three seasons at Napoli. Klopp also owed his stellar reputation mostly to achievements at one club, Borussia Dortmund, until Liverpool hired him.
He and Sarri share other traits: the high-energy football; less interest in tailored suits than many in their profession seem to have; a man-of-the-people earthiness that connects with supporters.
They are both adventurous by instinct, and for that, this weekend’s summit promises some more ‘Wow!’ moments.
Sarri’s start - two points dropped - has exceeded most expectations. But, as he points out readily, it is imperfect. Arsenal alarmed Chelsea last month; West Ham United shackled Hazard last weekend and a stronger Liverpool defence, in terms of personnel, than the League Cup version will set about doing the same.
The latter will likely bring to London phases of sustained, high-pressing blitz the like of which Sarri’s Chelsea have not yet encountered.
It is his biggest test so far in English football.
Updated: September 27, 2018 03:11 PM