Gianfranco Zola has defended under-pressure Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri by citing Pep Guardiola as an example of how it can take time for coaches to adapt to the Premier League.
Sarri’s footballing philosophy has come under increased scrutiny following three defeats from four league games which have left the Blues playing catch-up in the race for Champions League qualification.
Manchester City boss Guardiola contributed to Sarri’s misery last weekend when his in-form side inflicted Chelsea’s heaviest defeat for 28 years with a thumping 6-0 win.
The Spaniard, who guided City to the title in emphatic fashion last term, initially struggled to make his mark in England, finishing his first season trophy-less and 15 points adrift of Antonio Conte’s table-topping Chelsea side.
Ahead of Monday’s FA Cup fifth round tie with Manchester United, Blues assistant coach Zola says former Napoli coach Sarri is willing to modify his tactics but does not expect him to abandon his attacking, possession-based game-plan dubbed ‘Sarri-ball’.
“Two years ago, you were probably asking the same questions to Pep Guardiola,” said Zola.
“You were asking if he’d keep playing from the back all the time. He said this was not in discussion and part of my game, even in the difficult moment. Maybe he adapted.
“He has improved a lot in that, because he got his team defending better and pressing better, attacking better. He has adjusted something but not the way he saw football.
“There are questions about what we’re doing, a lot of doubts, but we are trying to adapt to the league.
“But we don’t change what we believe is good for this club because, otherwise, we are nothing.
“You admire what Pep has done. Certainly he’s a good inspiration. Not everything comes together straight away.”
Former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Guardiola has also benefited from heavy financial backing in Manchester.
Zola is unsure whether Sarri would require similar transfer funds to transform Chelsea’s fortunes. But he feels the Blues should be getting more from the under-performing stars currently on the club’s books.
“I can’t say we’re going to buy this or that. That’s not my position,” said Zola.
“There is a collaboration between Maurizio and Marina (Granovskaia, club director), and they will come up with the right things.
“We have players here who can do even more than what they’re doing, and we can go far as a team.
“Whether we are going to go for other players, I don’t know.”
Zola was a two-time FA Cup winner during his seven-year playing career at Stamford Bridge, lifting the trophy at the old Wembley Stadium in 1997 and 2000.
On the prospect of facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s resurgent United side, he added: “It’s a classic, a great game not only in the FA Cup, but for the whole country.
“Plus they are really in a good moment, so it’s a good challenge. And actually what we need to do right now.”
Who is the best centre-back in each of Europe’s top five leagues?
Well, to answer, we’re going to break down two of the best from each of the divisions to gain measure of just who is the standout star.
In this edition, we look at the Premier League and it’s Liverpool’s inspirational Virgil van Dijk versus Manchester City’s impressive Aymeric Laporte.
STATISTICS [2018/19 Premier League]
Minutes – 2305
Tackles – 23
Interceptions – 27
Clearances – 133
Pass success – 90.2%
Aerials won – 110
Minutes – 2337
Tackles – 30
Interceptions – 30
Clearances – 69
Pass success – 92.2%
Aerials won – 58
At 6ft 4 in Van Dijk is man-mountain, a colossus in the air and neigh on impossible to dribble around. He takes full advantage of his large frame and is one of the best in the air. Laporte is a towering defender in his own right and accomplished in aerial duels. Despite his imposing physique though, the Frenchman has a reputation for going about his business quietly and gracefully while the Dutchman makes the more eye-catching interventions.
Van Dijk’s also a powerful runner and his long strides carry his hefty physique at pace, facilitating numerous recoveries. His City counterpart is also quick on foot and in thought, making more nonchalant interceptions than crunching tackles while his passing can launch attacks or even slice right through defences.
Virgil van Dijk completed the most pases (103) in today’s match against Bournemouth - He was also the most accurate passer (96%) to play 45 minutes or more.— LFC Transfer Room (@LFCTransferRoom) February 9, 2019
Big Virg' always great 💪🏻🇳🇱 pic.twitter.com/U9LdYQFLLB
You can have all the tools but to be one of the best centre-backs in the world takes a level of sophistication. Van Dijk blends brawn with brains as it’s his reading of the game that keeps him a step – or two – ahead of opposing forwards and his alertness to potentially dangerous situations is second to none.
Laporte is no slouch in that department either. He may only be 24 but he’s gained a wealth of experience when operating in a high defensive line at Athletic Bilbao and that’s held him in good stead at Manchester City. He’s always available for a pass and isn’t afraid to step up and play an attacker offside. His ability to cover for a marauding left-back is vital when Benjamin Mendy is in full flight.
For all his attributes as a defender, it’s Van Dijk’s leadership that seems to have almost singlehandedly solidified Liverpool’s defence. Liverpool conceded 1.2 goals per game last season prior to his arrival compared to just 0.6 per game now. His mental strength really shines through when the team is behind as he pushes them forward with his distribution and occasional adventurous runs.
Unlike Van Dijk, Laporte is not the most vocal of defenders and doesn’t instantly strike you as a natural leader. Instead, he’s at his best when he’s flying under the radar – evidence that he’s doing his job right. He has nerves of steel, is never hurried in possession and coolly plays out from the back. However, an underlying aggression comes to the fore when a forward threatens to break away or when he’s attacking a set-piece.
Van Dijk was made the world’s most expensive defender when he was signed for £75 million and he’s already proved to be worth every penny just a year on. He is the complete modern centre-back and at 27, is in his prime. If Liverpool do win silverware this season, his recruitment will be credited with transforming an exciting team into a title-winning one.
Meanwhile, Laporte boasts remarkable consistency, so much so that he’s started in all but one of City’s league games this season. He’s a defender of the Rolls-Royce variety, elegantly going about his business, racking up several passes and picking forwards’ pockets before they even know he’s around.
Both defenders are among the best in the world but the Dutchman has the edge for his sheer influence on Liverpool and superiority in the air.
Gianfranco Zola says Chelsea must unite to rectify their stuttering season ahead of a crucial run of fixtures.
The FA Cup holders host Manchester United in the fifth round on Monday evening, before the second leg of their Europa League tie with Malmo and next Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester City.
Maurizio Sarri’s men then welcome London rivals Tottenham to Stamford Bridge hoping to boost their chances of Champions League qualification having dropped out of the Premier League top four after last weekend’s 6-0 thrashing by champions City.
The heavy defeat against Pep Guardiola’s side followed a 4-0 loss at Bournemouth in the club’s previous away game.
Asked if Chelsea’s players are demonstrating sufficient desire to turn things around, assistant coach Zola replied: “Of course. Nobody is pleased when you lose games the way we did recently. Not only the players, but the coaches and everyone.
“It’s a moment when we’ve been alternating the results, going from one good performance to a bad one. We don’t like.
“We have to be consistent. We all know this, and it’s important everyone understands the situation and is working on it: coaches, players and club. This is important. The unity facing the challenge will make the difference.”
Chelsea bounced back from their nightmare trip to the Etihad Stadium by securing a slender 2-1 aggregate lead in the first leg of their European tie with Malmo.
Sarri’s players were given the day off on Friday after arriving back in the UK in the early hours.
The Italian will hope the rest reaps the desired reward as he prepares for what could be a season-defining period, starting with the visit of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reinvigorated United team in a repeat of last season’s FA Cup final.
“We know it’s a crucial moment. We have some very important matches,” added Zola.
“It’s an important moment, very challenging. The key will be to face each task only thinking about that particular task.
“The first will be United, and we come into this game after a good performance in the Europa League. That’s the most important thing. Then we’ll think about City and Tottenham.”