In his single season in England, Maurizio Sarri did not maintain a good reputation. He was booed by his own fans, humiliated by his goalkeeper at Wembley and his football was branded boring and ineffective by many. In the end, he led Chelsea to their 6th European trophy with a 4-1 win over local rivals Arsenal in Baku last May, but did he provide more benefits for the Blues in the long-term than first meets the eye?

Having spent most of the previous 5 years playing typically defensive counter-attacking football under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte – both of which were well-respected by the fans for the success that they had brought but were seemingly unpopular with their players by the end of their respective reigns – Chelsea’s decision to appoint Maurizio Sarri as head coach was a surprising one.

Sarri had begun as a banker and worked his way up through Italian football over a number of years playing attractive fast-paced attacking football, culminating in his Napoli side’s valiant title attack in which they finished 2nd behind Juventus in Serie A despite earning a record-breaking 91 points. He had, however, never won a major trophy in nearly 30 years as a manager.

This appointment, for many, appeared to signal a change in attitude amongst the Stamford Bridge board members. Was Chelsea’s owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, finally turning away from his sacking culture that he had created in West London by firing managers before they could prove themselves, and had he finally decided that it was time to invest and put his faith in someone who could gradually transform the team over a couple of years as part of a long-term project?

Sarri immediately got off to a flying start in the Premier League, breaking the record for the longest unbeaten streak by a new manager while also starting to get the most out of Eden Hazard, who was now converting his wonderful technical ability and dribbling into goals having just won the Silver Ball award at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Performances began to decline towards the end of the calendar year though, as the Blues fell to defeat to Tottenham, Wolves and Leicester in quick succession. In the new year they went on to lose to Arsenal in an incredibly poor performance that forced Sarri to give his post-match interview in Italian to ensure that his message to his players was clear, before suffering humiliating 4-0 and 6-0 defeats to Bournemouth and Manchester City respectively.

Home fans at Stamford Bridge began to openly ridicule Sarri’s tactics, known as “Sarri-ball”, during a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup, while the Italian also faced heavy criticism for his treatment of Callum Hudson-Odoi: Chelsea’s talented youngster who had worked his way up from the academy but was now being left out of the squad most weeks and attracting transfer interest from German heavyweights Bayern Munich.

Less than a week later, Chelsea lost to Manchester City on penalties in the Carabao Cup final in late February as £71.6m Kepa Arrizabalaga’s refusal to leave the field as a substitute when instructed to by Sarri took the headlines. This appeared to be the first outward sign of unrest and a lack of discipline in the Blues’ dressing room, despite the goalkeeper’s insistence that the incident was nothing more than a “misunderstanding”.

Nevertheless, Sarri eventually steered his side to a top four finish in the Premier League, securing Chelsea a Champions League spot, and came out victorious in the Europa League as well to earn his first trophy as a manager. This joy was short-lived though, as Sarri soon took the opportunity to become Juventus manager for the upcoming season, meaning that his first so-called “building season” in charge in West London had all gone to waste.

During this season, his decision to deploy defensive midfielder N’golo Kante in a more advanced role was questioned by fans and pundits alike, while Mateo Kovacic – who struggled to pick up goals or assists – was rendered useless for the team, and tactics to play the ball out from the back were dismissed as pointless. But was Sarri right all along?

Since the appointment of club legend Frank Lampard – who also has an attacking managerial philosophy - last Summer, Kante’s new role has no longer been questioned. The Frenchman has clearly demonstrated with his superb performance against Liverpool in the Super Cup and several goals that he has scored in the Premier League that his immense stamina and work ethic is wasted in a static holding midfielder role, which he had been confined to before Sarri’s arrival.

Similarly Mateo Kovacic – who was signed permanently from Real Madrid for a reported £40m over the Summer – has proved his doubters wrong, demonstrating his incredible ability to create chances and control the ball in Lampard’s double pivot midfield.

Jorginho – who had followed Sarri to Chelsea from Napoli in 2018 and had been nicknamed “Sarri’s pet” due to the Italian’s perceived favouritism and over-reliance towards him – has also flourished in Lampard’s system, racking up incredible numbers of tackles, interceptions, recoveries and chances created from a deep-lying midfield position.

Furthermore, Chelsea starting attacks by using their defenders to play out from the back is no longer being scrutinised so much, especially as they have ball-playing centre backs who are perfectly capable of doing so and as this is a tactic that many successful managers have now adopted in the modern game.

So is this all down to a piece of tactical genius from Lampard, or did Sarri have a large part to play in this sudden transformation of some of Chelsea’s tactics that were deemed ineffective before and players that went under the radar in the past?

Ultimately, it has very much been a joint-effort. It was Sarri who managed to instil this attacking mindset into the squad to gradually guide them away from their outdated defensive football, acting as a catalyst for the whole process, but it has been Lampard who has perfected this new style and managed to find ways to start attacks and score without heavily relying on both Jorginho and Eden Hazard, with the latter having left for Real Madrid during the Summer.

Whether that’s down to Sarri’s ineptitude in motivating the squad - which he said himself was difficult to do – compared to Lampard who seems to have the utmost respect of all his staff and players, or whether it’s simply because Sarri laid the foundations for the Englishman to progress, is unclear.

Either way, what is clear is that Frank Lampard looks set to succeed at his former club where he spent most of his playing days. Within just a couple of months in charge, he appears to have already established a clearer philosophy than several other managers of the Premier League’s traditional “top 6” sides, while also handing out several full Premier League debuts and minutes to youth players from Chelsea’s academy, all without making any signings and without last season’s club player of the year on the left wing.

So essentially, it seems that Maurizio Sarri walked so that Frank Lampard could run.

By Oliver McCabe.