In Italy, it’s known as Sarrismo, in England “Sarri Ball.”
Whatever you call it, there is no denying the success that Maurizio Sarri and his tactical approach have enjoyed, whether that is in the tangible form of his Europa League victory during his time at Chelsea or the number of neutral fans who loved to tune in and watch his Napoli side in action.
Whichever of those teams you admired most, it was impossible to not delight in the sheer joy on the coach’s face last May, a huge grin breaking across the face of the 61-year-old Italian as he stood on the turf of Baku’s Olympic Stadium and admired his winner’s medal.
It was and still is seen as a reward for the hard work Sarri has put in as he built up his coaching credentials, going from the Tuscan minor divisions all the way up to the Premier League. Along the way, he has tweaked and refined his approach, but supporters at both Stamford Bridge and the Stadio San Paolo can attest as to just how long it takes for his vision to bear fruit.
Maurizio Sarri taking a moment on his own to just look at his Europa League winner's medal is everything pic.twitter.com/s3VEQTEKp9— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 30, 2019
In both London and Naples, his teams struggled to assimilate his demands in the early months, slowly becoming familiar with Sarri’s method and the movements his tactical framework demands. It is for that very reason that he took a number of players with him from club-to-club, bringing former Empoli men Elseid Hysaj, Mario Rui, Lorenzo Tonelli and Mirko Valdifiori to Napoli before signing Jorginho and Gonzalo Higuain during his Chelsea tenure.
Those acquisitions helped their team-mates immensely, particularly Jorginho, who embodies the approach of the man on the sidelines. Sarri, in his club tracksuit and white trainers, might look unkempt and untidy, but his footballing philosophy is extremely precise, using drone technology to record the players and ensure they are in exactly the right position at all times.
Jorginho’s movement around the pitch, his ability to read the game and anticipate how it will unfold are central tenants of the boss’ teachings, but it is of course the Brazilian-born midfielder’s passing that best defines ‘Sarrismo.’ It was no surprise to see the 28-year-old touted as a target for Juventus once the boss moved to Turin, but he remained in England as a ready-made alternative was already present in the Bianconeri squad.
PJANIC: PASS MASTER
At his inaugural press conference with Juve, Sarri talked about adapting his system to the characteristics of his players while still adhering to the principles that won over so many neutrals, and spoke of the important role one player in particular would occupy right at the heart of it. “I’d like to see Miralem Pjanić touch the ball 150 times per game,” the Coach told reporters, “but first we need to teach the rest of the team to find him 150 times!”
It was a challenge that the Bosnian international relished, slowly adapting his game to fulfil the duties Sarri had given him. By the time the Old Lady took on SPAL in late September, Pjanic was up to 127 touches, his team-mates seeking him out while the 29-year-old continued to exploit spaces as he always has and used his excellent vision to consistently deliver the right pass.
Yes, it was a game against one of Serie A’s lesser sides, but under Leonardo Semplici, the minnows have earned plenty of good results and – crucially – it was a very different display from Pjanic than we had previously seen when Max Allegri was at the helm.
Unlike the sideways passing of Tiki Taka that is used to allow Pep Guardiola’s teams to rest while in possession – or, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson "they get you on that carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing!” – Sarri is far more direct, asking his central midfielder to move the ball upfield as quickly as possible, something Pjanic explained during an interview shortly after that encounter with SPAL.
“There has been a big change from Allegri to Sarri, the way we position ourselves on the field and the way we play has changed,” he told Sky Italia.
“Allegri asked me to try and play the ball out to the flanks: as soon as I had it, I had to switch the play. Instead of that, I now try to pass the ball forward because there are a lot of players ahead of me who move between the lines.”
EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION
Another key factor has been the fact the defensive line is set much higher up the pitch, the advanced position of Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt in turn pushed into the opposition half rather than the trio sitting on the edge of their own box as they so often did with Allegri.
He has remained the same player, constantly on the move, always glancing over his shoulder to see who is around him, but there is no question Pjanić’s play – or at the very least, his passing – has evolved to meet Sarri’s demands.
Earlier this month, Juve took on a Cagliari side who had surprised many observers during 2019/20, defying expectations to push themselves into contention for a Europa League berth. Last weekend’s draw with title contenders Inter proved their credentials remain intact, but in Turin they were ruthlessly dismantled by the Bianconeri.
Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show with his first hat-trick as a Juventus player, but behind his headline-grabbing performance was a sublime display from Pjanić who connected with 117 of his 126 pass attempts. Sixty-Five (or 55.6%) were probing forward balls, seeking out Paulo Dybala, Aaron Ramsey and CR7 with a number of perfectly weighted efforts.
It was a far cry from his contribution to the same fixture last term where the former AS Roma man attempted just 59 passes despite playing in an almost identical system with Dybala, Ronaldo and Douglas Costa in attack. So many of Pjanić’s attempts were sideways and non-threatening, only 15 (28.3%) went forward that day, a stark contrast to the more direct approach he took this time around.
“I try to do what Sarri asks me to do - find space and make sure I’m available to receive the ball,” the midfielder told Tuttosport earlier this year.
“I like his vision and playing with only one or two touches. We need to make the ball run quicker than us because the ball must always travel quicker.”
That has certainly been true and, thanks to the urging and teachings of Maurizio Sarri, Miralem Pjanic is the one making sure it does.