Chelsea played their most comprehensive Sarrismo with 25% less possession than their average from the first six Premier League games under Maurizio Sarri.
Passing and possession are not only neither necessary nor sufficient, they can be a hindrance to the style everyone wants.
“Is this Sarriball?” Every short pass from Jorginho or extended chain of passes between the wingers, midfielders, centre-backs, defenders – really anyone other than Kepa Arrizabalaga and the centre-forward – prompted wide-eyed tweets from expectant Chelsea fans this season.
Maurizio Sarri needed only an abbreviated preseason to teach the Blues how to suffer with the ball, which fans masochistically embraced despite its sneaking resemblance to suffering without the ball.
Chelsea maintained 62% possession in their first two games. They rocketed to 81% against Newcastle in matchweek three, and built up an average of 71% over the first six matches.
Yet their most convincing display of Sarrismo came with only 47% possession and a pedestrian 465 passes.
Liverpool were the perfect opponent at the perfect time for the Blues to show Maurizio Sarri how much progress they have made, and the rest of us what Sarrismo really is.
Chelsea are not yet at the point in their development where they can impose Sarrismo at will. They still need a certain compliance from their opponent.
Liverpool offered that because sitting back and defending is as anathema to Jurgen Klopp as it is to Maurizio Sarri. By hitting Chelsea on the counter-attack, pressing and counter-pressing, pursuing a multi-goal win rather than trying to grind out a minimal loss or draw, Liverpool gave Chelsea the space they needed to play how Sarri wants to play.
Because Liverpool played an advanced, expansive style of football, Chelsea could do the same. They did not need to recycle the ball endlessly through Jorginho as they searched in vain for a vertical passing lane into the box.
The centre-backs could make long passes from the defensive third up to the wingers. N’Golo Kante could do the same from any point in his box-to-box realm.
Jorginho could press higher and Mateo Kovacic could come central, creating the sort of fulcrum that then sends the wingers out wide, as they showed to great effect on Eden Hazard’s goals.
One side effect was the Blues had a more even distribution of passing across the side, from Kepa Arrizabalaga up to the wingers (Olivier Giroud was much less active than usual, for individual more than team reasons).
The Blues have their best offensive games – quantitatively in the 4-1 win over Cardiff, qualitatively against Liverpool – when the passes are spread out, rather than heavily concentrated in one player (usually Jorginho).
Against Liverpool, the whole team was involved across the pitch, and the passing had more purpose and thrust than the usual U-shaped rotation of a team in endless possession just inside the final third.
The next stage in Chelsea’s development will be learning how to play Sarrismo against less compliant (read: defensive) teams. This is more of what Maurizio Sarri was talking out when he said Chelsea are a year away from playing like Liverpool – when they control the tactical destiny of games.
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola both have their teams fully in charge of games even when they are not on the ball. Guardiola speaks of the ball as a blackhole. Other teams get drawn to it, leaving open spaces elsewhere to exploit.
Klopp takes a similar approach, letting other teams hold possession as Liverpool draws them out. Now that Liverpool is more defensively sound this is a much less risky proposition than it was in his first season.
Liverpool can lull their opponents into moving their midfielders and centre-backs just a little too much forward, and expand their lines just a bit too widely.
A quick press or well-timed tackle then triggers a counter-attack, leading either to a goal or extended period of gegenpressung.
The Blues may be newly adept at suffering with the ball to go with their experience in suffering without the ball. But that is only the training-wheel stage of Sarrismo. For Chelsea to reach Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s level, they must learn to control the game without the ball.
Right now, their only mechanism of control is sustained possession and rhythmic passing. If the opponent does not want to create the conditions for Sarrismo, the Blues are at the mercy and reliant on the overwhelming quality of their side.
This part of why so many goals have come through Eden Hazard this season. His individual talents not only vanquish the opposition, they compensate for the Blues’ deficiencies. He is Maurizio Sarri’s human cheat code.
Chelsea’s overwhelming possession and passing in their first six games (seven, including Europa League) will go down as a mark of immature Sarrismo rather than an indication of the finished product.
More than that, extreme possession and passing will be seen as a hindrance to what Sarrismo should be: dynamic, creative, high-scoring and entertaining.
The reverse fixtures against those first six opponents will be much different from what we have seen in the last month and a half. Even if teams like Newcastle and Cardiff stack nine men behind the ball, they will not have the final word in 2019.