London life has brought out a softer side in Maurizio Sarri that few, in Italy at least, ever believed existed.
The English press thought they were getting the third instalment to a feisty trilogy starring Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte.
But, try as they did to rattle him with fair questions about a rap sheet including his abusive tirade at then Inter Milan coach Roberto Mancini, Sarri presented a humble face. Grave, even. The message being that the past had been left in Napoli.
There is little sign that the façade is ready to crack. If Claudio Ranieri is the grandfather everyone would love to have then, at his most genial, Sarri has at least given off the impression of a friendly uncle.
Some Italian journalists though remain sceptical. As one put it, while it is surprising how quickly Chelsea’s players have adapted to his style of football, that the 58-year-old has maintained pristine PR so far is almost incredible.
The simple explanation is that Sarri has had no cause to unsheathe his knives just yet. Four Premier League games, four wins, little scrutiny, little pressure.
You won’t find a bad word about him from his players, either – liberated from the claustrophobia under Conte with the high press and quick passing in the attacking third.
BUT WAIT A MINUTE …
The good times will end. Sarri admitted as much himself after Saturday’s victory over Bournemouth. And if you’re reading the tea leaves then a familiar fuzzy shape emerges – David Luiz.
Conte’s fourth-choice centre-back has been installed as Sarri’s premier defender, and has remained so despite the comical interludes in some otherwise superb Chelsea performances.
Kalidou Koulibaly learned the art of Sarrismo defending at Napoli and once called his former coach a ‘scholar’ such is his knowledge of the game. The only studying Luiz has demonstrated so far is his Master’s degree in ball-watching.
Caught out of position numerous times in the helter-skelter win at Arsenal, his lack of spatial awareness for Joselu’s equaliser against Newcastle was vintage David defending.
Even the Bournemouth game could so easily have turned out differently if not for Callum Wilson’s awful finishing. Wilson had his head in his hands by the time Luiz realised he was out of position. While his partner Antonio Rudiger will never be the Lothar Matthaus of his generation, at least he has the safety valve of his physicality. There is nothing safe about Luiz.
Sarri though thinks he can tutor Luiz, and may even be under the impression that the Brazilian simply has not had enough time to digest his myriad requests.
To break down Sarri’s philosophy in layman’s terms a defender is taught to defend the ball, not the man. In open play that means constantly checking position to shut down passing lanes and compact space. From dead-ball situations that means zonal marking.
Luiz had the chance to pick the brains over some of the best defensively astute coaches in football in Mourinho and Conte but has remained a clumsy, meme-worthy maverick.
What chance Sarri corrects habits of a lifetime? There is some value in his ability on the ball and Sarri admires such attributes in his defenders for his lightning-quick transitions. Being so susceptible in defence, however, is too steep a price to pay.
It is why Sarri must make his first bold move, or at least admit his mistake, and bring Andreas Christensen back in from the cold.
Maybe the ugly error that Christensen made in such a high-profile game against Barcelona last season – needlessly passing across the goal and allowing Lionel Messi to intercept – is nestled in the back of his mind.
It was the biggest error in perhaps a handful during a year that saw the 22-year-old break through and become one of Conte’s most trusted enforcers.
Clearly he cannot have blown away Sarri on the training ground yet, but it is worth noting that last term the Dane completed a team-leading 96 per cent of his passes in the Champions League. It’s just that one particular pass of that errant four per cent was so costly.
Even if he did undergo Sarri-induced growing pains there is more sense developing a player of the future than teaching an old, slightly rabid dog in Luiz new tricks.
The alternative is opening the chequebook in a market that has seen Virgil van Dijk move for £75 million and nearly tempt Manchester United into parting with at least £60m for Harry Maguire off the back of one World Cup. Manchester City also paid around £50m a piece for potential in John Stones and Aymeric Laporte. What, then, is Christensen worth?
Well, at least a very strong look. Sarri should pre-empt a disaster and get rid of his class clown for a potential star pupil, otherwise we’ll soon find out exactly how grumpy he can get.
Following a difficult start to the campaign and a chaotic pre-season in which Pogba had to deal with several jibes from Jose Mourinho, the rumours have not gone away that the France World Cup winner could depart.
Reportedly, Pogba is ready to force a move out of Old Trafford amid suggested interest from the Old Lady – the club he won four consecutive Serie A titles with between 2012 and 2016.
Embattled Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is expecting a response from his players as they attempt to end another turbulent week with a Premier League victory at Burnley.
The Portuguese mounted a stout defence of his own record on Friday as he insisted he remains “one of the greatest managers in the world”, referencing philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the process.
However, he knows the pressure will continue to build if United do not turn around a season which began with victory over Leicester, but has since seen them lose at Brighton and then 3-0 to Tottenham at Old Trafford on Monday night.
Asked if he sensed a determination within the camp to put things right, Mourinho told the club’s official website: “I do. There are defeats and defeats. A defeat always means zero points, but there are defeats and defeats.
“I think the feeling was a great frustration and a great sense of it (the result against Tottenham) not being fair at all, far from it.
“But during the week, people transform that into motivation to work and once more the week was very, very good.
“We just hope to play as well as we did against Tottenham, but with different luck and a different result.”
United have won at Turf Moor in each of the last two seasons, goals from Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney doing the damage in April last year and Martial’s lone strike securing the points in January.
However, Mourinho is well aware of the threat posed by Sean Dyche’s men, who drew 2-2 on their last visit to Old Trafford having led 2-0 – they also emerged with a point on their previous visit.
Mourinho said: “Matches against them are always difficult. They are competitive, aggressive and fight for every ball. If you are not ready for that, it’s even more difficult for you.”
The United boss was in the crowd on Thursday evening as the Clarets’ Europa League adventure drew to a close with a 4-2 aggregate defeat by Olympiakos, although he is not convinced he will have learned too much to help him on Sunday.
He said: “I knew that they would change the majority of their players and the majority of the players that played will probably be on the bench on Sunday.
“It’s always a good way to have a look and to see the direction they go and try to compare with the things that we watch in video analysis and it’s a good experience.”