Maurizio Sarri is back in London and enjoying a fast start at Chelsea. In an exclusive interview, he told Peter Smith about his love of the capital, how he motivates Eden Hazard and why Jorginho is a surprise leader for his team…
“Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham… even Queen’s Park Rangers. I watched them all!”
Maurizio Sarri has fond memories of his first time living in London. It was 30 years ago and the Italian was in England studying, back when he thought his future lay in banking rather than the dugout. His passion for the game was as strong as it is now.
“Of course I went to watch football,” he tells Sky Sports with a smile during an exclusive interview at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground. “It was very different back then. English football was at the time typically English. Now it is more European.
“But that was a long time ago, many years ago, when I came here to study the language. Yes, things have changed but London has the same charm.”
The Chelsea boss is clearly fond of the capital but the renowned workaholic concedes he has so far had little time for tourism during his second stay.
“I love England, it’s my home now,” said Sarri, who was appointed by Chelsea in the summer. “But I’ve been to the city, the centre of London, very little as I don’t really relax.
“I get a little bit of relaxation during the international break, perhaps! But I do love living here, though.”
A strong start to the season has no doubt helped him settle in. The Sarri era may have begun with a Community Shield defeat to Manchester City but since then the Blues have been unbeaten in all competitions.
They sit third in the Premier League table ahead of a Sky Live trip to Southampton on Sunday, top of their Europa League group and are into the fourth round of the Carabao Cup after beating Liverpool at Anfield.
But more than just positive results, Sarri has also overseen a remarkable transformation in Chelsea’s playing style.
The more conservative tactics of Antonio Conte have been swapped for an approach which has seen Chelsea dominate possession, break passing records and attack with freedom.
The hard work on the training ground has clearly paid off – but Sarri concedes even he is surprised by how quickly the Chelsea squad have adapted to his style.
“Yes I am surprised,” he said. “I’m very lucky to have players of such quality and we’re very lucky to have this positive start because of the players.
“It’s true it’s a different style to last season but this team is full of players who are suitable to my style of play.”
A central figure is midfielder Jorginho. The Italian playmaker was at the heart of Sarri’s title-challenging Napoli side last season and, after a £50m transfer in the summer, is now pulling the strings in the middle of the park for Chelsea.
But as well as being a pass master – Jorginho set a new Premier League high for passes against West Ham last month – he is also a leader for Sarri in the dressing room.
“Jorginho is really suitable to the way I like to play,” said Sarri. “He is a player that has many good sides to him. He wants to work hard and he’s very fast in moving the ball, which is important for us, although there is also Cesc Fabregas, who has the same potential as Jorginho.
“But he also has a big personality, although it may not seem like it from the outside. He’s an example on the pitch and outside the pitch and he can be an example for his team-mates.”
The standout star for Chelsea so far this season, though, has unquestionably been Premier League top scorer Eden Hazard.
The Belgian was linked with Real Madrid in the summer after helping his country to third place at the World Cup but while speculation can disrupt some players, he has been in superb form, scoring six times from seven appearances.
How did Sarri re-focus and motivate Hazard for the 2018/19 campaign with Chelsea? By letting him play with freedom- and challenging him with some ambitious goals.
“It is easy to stimulate Hazard – as long as you let him have fun,” said Sarri, who has set the forward a target of 40 goals this season.
“He’s very easy, it didn’t need strategies from me. He doesn’t get influenced by the media and what happens around him. As long as he’s having fun and he plays. And he loves playing football.
“But you need important objectives for important players. And he can improve if he becomes a little bit more aggressive and gives the best of himself.”
You get the sense Hazard – and Chelsea – will continue to do just that under Sarri’s management.
Three decades on, it is Sarri and his entertaining style which is exciting football fans in the capital.