The enthusiasm and energy of both Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have been well documented already this season, with both sides racing ahead of the competition with their fantastic start to the current Premier League. It is, however, Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea that may just have slipped under the radar of many, but the Blues must be considered serious title contenders for their equally stunning start to the season. Chelsea have 15 league goals to their name from their seven games, equalling the Merseyside club and just six behind the champions on 21, thus proving that their two rivals aren’t the only ones capable of assaulting the net in a relentless manner.
Add to that just five goals conceded, and there is real potential for success this season. New arrival between the sticks, Kepa Arrizabalaga, has been central to their stern defensive prowess, with the young shot-stopper having kept three clean sheets in the league, just one behind the league’s best of Allison Becker and Ederson. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper is a hugely pressurising tag to bear at just 23 years of age, but the Spaniard looks set to have a stunning career at Stamford Bridge in the coming years.
While they couldn’t be further from a one-man team, the brightest spark of not only Chelsea’s campaign but of the Premier League thus far has, however, been one man and one man only. Eden Hazard’s brilliance has shone through at this early stage of the season, with the Belgian netting six goals and providing two assists for his side in the league. It was disappointingly one of each at this stage last season, and so whatever the clever attacker is practising in training, it’s certainly working on matchdays. With his tricky feet, cunning runs and lethal finishing, Hazard has been simply unstoppable, with his precise strike against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup perhaps epitomising just the sort of football the club are capable of this season. Simple, but hugely effective.
Frank Lampard faces an ominous return to Stamford Bridge when he takes his Derby side there in the same competition in the coming weeks, but it’s not just his former teammate that he has to worry about. David Luiz has undoubtedly come into his own this campaign, and is seemingly working wonders under new coach Sarri. The Brazilian has been given a new lease of life since the Italian took over, and has even recorded the most through balls in the Premier League this season, as well as boasting a place in the top ten passers in the league on 515 successful passes, joined by fellow defender Cesar Azpilicueta on 527.
Unsurprisingly then the Blues are not far off serial passers Manchester City in the statistics, with the former on 5,077 and the latter just ahead on 5,111. More unsurprisingly, however, is the fact that the majority of these Chelsea passes have come from new recruit Jorginho, who has slotted effortlessly into an immensely talented midfield trio. The Italian national has recorded an incredible 762 passes this season, soaring high ahead of his nearest competitor Aymeric Laporte on 680. Brazilian-born Jorginho has even broken a Premier League record since his arrival, attempting 180 passes during the goalless draw at West Ham, with a completion rate of 90% and the majority completed in the opposition half.
N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic meanwhile have been going about their business quietly but efficiently, with the Croatian a perfect fit for Sarri’s style of play and the Frenchman is, well, continuously proving his worth on and off the pitch over and over and over again. This is a midfield that can challenge for the title of the best in the business in English football and perhaps in Europe, yet the fact that Cesc Fabregas, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are struggling for first team action just shows the strength in depth that the club currently possess. Moreover, with the likes of Gary Cahill, Davide Zappacosta, Victor Moses, either Pedro or Willian and even Alvaro Morata all ready to pounce if given the opportunity, along with the youth of Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi, Chelsea should be feared.
On a more worrying note for their nearest league challengers, Sarri can afford to rest his star men for a Europa League competition that in no way should cause any stress to the club until the latter stages of the tournament, with BATE Borisov, PAOK Salonika and Hungarian minnows MOL Vidi providing the Blues with their initial European encounters in Group L. These sides have, however, already caused Chelsea problems, with Sarri’s men scraping through their first two games with a narrow 1-0 margin on both occasions.
The only obvious negative to such a promising 2018/19 campaign may lie in the never-ending issue of the front line. Olivier Giroud has ousted big-money signing Morata in recent weeks, yet his fantastic record in English football and beyond is often overlooked at Chelsea, with the French international often considered unfit to participate in the ‘Sarri-Ball’ we are now so familiar with. With 129 crosses in the league this season, another top ten statistic, it’s evident that they are more often than not trying to accommodate Giroud, and while the formidable frontman has shown his ability to link up intricately with Hazard, one can only imagine just how much damage this Chelsea line-up could cause should they have an out-and-out goalscorer among their ranks.
Chelsea’s strong start to the season simply cannot be discussed without touching on Maurizio Sarri, who has demonstrated his commitment to the cause already at this early stage. The Chelsea faithful are now well aware of just how talented their new leader is, yet the Italian wasn’t a sure thing when he arrived in July. Sarri certainly doesn’t have the vast experience and endless list of team and individual honours that many of his current Premier League counterparts possess, while his extremely limited playing experience doesn’t come close to the likes of Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino. Unlike any other of the current crop of coaches, Sarri instead chose to spend his time as a banker in Tuscany, before finally deciding that coaching was his true calling at the age of 40.
The Naples-born boss spent several years working his way through countless clubs within the lower echelons of Italian football, slowly but surely learning exactly what it takes to make it in this fiercely competitive and ruthlessly unforgiving field.
His biggest break in coaching then arrived at Serie B club Empoli in 2012, with whom he guided to fourth place in his first season in charge, narrowly losing out to noisy neighbours Livorno in the playoff final. However, patience was the key virtue for both Sarri and his side as they clinched promotion to Serie A in the 2013/14 season after six painful years away, and it was perhaps their ability to avoid promotion the following year that convinced Napoli to take him on board.
His time at Napoli will not only be remembered for successive top-three finishes in a hugely competitive league, including two second place positions where champions Juventus were pushed right to the very last but for his tactical decisions and approach towards the game. Sarri’s most underappreciated moment back at his beloved hometown perhaps lies within the unpopular sale of prolific forward Gonzalo Higuain who, after forcing through a move to Juventus, was replaced by a current member of the squad as opposed to mega-money signing from the world of football. Belgian winger Dries Mertens was the man tasked with the almost-impossible, yet in a more central position under the guidance of Sarri, the tricky forward netted 28 goals as the club finished third in Serie A. Could another skilful Belgian do the same at Chelsea?
The Italian was rewarded with the coach of the year award among other personal honours and was revered in the nation for his ability to both improve squad depth and tactically tweak his side to great effect. Three successful years at Empoli were followed by three successful years at Napoli, and now the 59-year-old has the opportunity for further success in the blue of Chelsea.
While high-flying Liverpool and the riches of Manchester City are enjoying themselves at the top of the league, Chelsea are the ones to watch. At least one unbeaten run will come to an abrupt halt this weekend, with the Blues travelling to Southampton on Sunday morning, before Manchester City and Liverpool lay their fine form on the line at Anfield later that afternoon. The West London side are, however, very much the team to beat at this early stage of the season.