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Can Maresca become Chelsea's version of Arteta?

By Alex Keble 3 Jun 2024
Maresca

Alex Keble analyses new head coach's tactics and how he will use the players he inherits

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Alex Keble analyses Enzo Maresca and what Chelsea can expect from their new head coach.

Every profile of new Chelsea head coach Enzo Maresca must begin in the same way. The first thing to mention is that Maresca is a Pep Guardiola pupil. The second is that he’s really into chess.

How you feel about Maresca’s football will ultimately come down to what those two facts mean to you.

For some, a meticulous and disciplined tactician obsessed with the intricacies of “positional play” – who sees the pitch like a chessboard - is just what’s needed; the sign of a progressive and intelligent coach playing cutting-edge football.

Others see calculated possession football in the same way they see chess: slow and boring.

That would definitely be a harsh description of a manager who impressed as Manuel Pellegrini’s chief tactician at West Ham United (below); won Manchester City their first-ever Premier League 2 title; was Guardiola’s assistant in their Treble-winning season; and almost broke the 100-point barrier at Leicester City in 2023/24.

Maresca Pellegrini

But there were groans from some supporters in the early days at Leicester, a situation that came to a head when Maresca appeared to threaten to quit if fans weren’t behind the style.

If it seems unfair to cite one small example of resistance in an otherwise hugely successful season, we do so only because there is so little evidence to go on and every incident must be magnified for clues.

That’s why hiring Maresca is undoubtedly a gamble. He has just one full season at Leicester and a disastrous 14-game spell as Parma coach to his name, as he begins what from the outside looks to be one of the toughest jobs going.

Then again, Maresca’s tactics are more aligned with Chelsea’s recruitment process than his predecessor Mauricio Pochettino and there is plenty to like about a young manager excelling in the finer details of tactical organisation.

Of course, that’s exactly the thinking that led Chelsea to Graham Potter.

Maresca’s approach is pure Pep

“The most important is positional play and strategy,” Maresca told Gazzetta dello Sport. “For a coach, it’s important to have the mentality of a chess player: develop a plan, study counter moves, choose the arrangement of the pieces.”

The level of detail wowed the Leicester players this season, and in true Guardiola fashion, it led to a distinctive playing style based on seeking total control through possession (61.6 per cent average at Leicester), as Opta’s Team Sequence graphic (below) shows.

Team style passes per sequence

Maresca lines up in a 4-3-3 formation that becomes a Pep-patented 3-2-5 on the ball: the right-back inverts into central midfield to create that 3-2 shape in the first two lines, and then the two No 8s move up towards the front line to make the line of five.

The idea is to create numerical advantages all over the pitch, most notably in central midfield, where that inverting full-back makes a four-on-three, or, should the opposition sit in a deep block, a dropping No 9 adds the extra player.

Anyone familiar with the Guardiola way – also seen notably at Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal – will recognise Maresca’s analysis in his Coaches’ Voice masterclass video.

Other familiar aspects of the Guardiola system include: No 8s making gut-busting “third man” runs into the half-spaces and behind the defensive line; wingers holding the width to isolate the full-backs; and, of course, centre-backs beginning moves of patient, well-rehearsed passing patterns.

Out of possession, Maresca’s Leicester would counter-press quickly, aiming to win the ball high up the pitch and in dangerous positions, usually going man-to-man all over the pitch.

Chelsea’s squad a good fit for Maresca tactics

Maresca famously spent a long time introducing the Leicester players to “the idea” last summer, preparing them in the classroom before any field work could take place.

At Chelsea, those meetings will go down well.

Cole Palmer, who worked with Maresca at Man City, should continue to star for Chelsea and is likely to flourish in the Guardiola structure he learnt when developing in the City academy.

Christopher Nkunku is certainly capable of becoming the “false nine” Maresca would prefer, although his successful retraining of Jamie Vardy into a more rounded striker suggests Nicolas Jackson can adapt.

Palmer-Nkunku-Madueke

Those aggressive and high-energy No 8 positions could be filled by Carney Chukwuemeka and Conor Gallagher, but this might be one area in particular that Maresca would like an upgrade.

In the holding midfield position, Enzo Fernandez is a perfect player to anchor the team and spray passes around. Harry Winks did this at Leicester, ending the Championship season with a pass accuracy of 93.1 per cent. Fernandez should enjoy a simplified metronomic role.

Ricardo Pereira came in from right-back to complete the double pivot for Leicester, and Marc Cucurella’s recent performances inverting from left-back suggest the former Brighton & Hove Albion-trained full-back will tuck in under Maresca.

Raheem Sterling has the Guardiola training to be a touchline-hugging winger again, and Noni Madueke will also prefer isolating full-backs to the infield positions where Pochettino liked to place his wide men: according to FBRef, Madueke is in the 98th percentile for progressive carries (6.71 per 90 minutes) among wingers in the “Big Five” leagues over the last 365 days.

In defence, Chelsea’s recruitment team have looked to bring in ball-playing centre-backs, and indeed Benoit Badiashile, Axel Disasi, and Wesley Fofana are in the Maresca mould.

The foundations are very much in place, then.

Inexperience an issue but Maresca has flexibility to adapt

It’s fair to say this is not the high-profile manager that many Chelsea supporters were after, and the biggest risk of this appointment is fan unrest should things start badly.

Maresca’s system is certainly high-risk. Leicester’s press-baiting when playing out from the back caused 24 errors leading to shots in the Championship last season, the most in the division, while the man-to-man pressing has similarities to his friend Roberto De Zerbi, whose gambles don’t always come off.

When you put that together with his inexperience at the top level of management and the bouts of confusion that have plagued Chelsea in the last couple of seasons, it is easy to envisage teething problems ranging anywhere from Pochettino’s first half-season to Potter’s entire eight-month spell.

But Maresca is not a dogmatic manager. The principles might always remain but he is very open to moving to “Plan B” within matches, tinkering with the formation and positional instructions to react to flaws or expose opposition weaknesses.

“The Plan B has given us around 15 extra points this season,” Maresca has said. “It is the same concept but we just change the structure.

“They can adapt. At the start of the season, I said many times that we needed to wait until half-time to adjust things. Now we don’t have to wait. We can change after an hour, or half an hour, even after 15 minutes. This is fantastic.”

That being said, Maresca has unwavering belief in his idea.

“I arrive in this club to play with this idea,” Maresca said after a 3-1 win over Swansea City in January in which he heard groans from the stands aimed at Leicester’s prosaic tiki-taka. “The moment there is some doubt about the idea, the day after, I will leave. It’s so clear. No doubts.”

Will Chelsea be patient?

The biggest question mark, then, is whether those at Stamford Bridge will have the patience to see Maresca’s vision come together.

That our main concern relates to post-match comments made after a victory says it all: there is so little evidence to go on, so few examples of adversity or adaptation to consider, we are forced to scrutinise potentially inconsequential moments.

Maresca is an unknown entity, a tactician whose ideas worked well in charge of a Championship side who boasted the best squad in the division. It was a frictionless ascent. That will not last.

Maresca is a highly regarded tactician. He has risen quickly and received glowing reviews from many sources, most notably Guardiola himself, who said back in 2021 that “I have a feeling he will be an incredible manager like I had with Mikel Arteta”.

Guardiola isn’t usually wrong. But Chelsea are not like other clubs.

At Parma, things went wrong chiefly for Maresca because the owners had spent lavishly and he struggled to integrate far too many new signings in one summer.

He may need Chelsea to show the patience that Arsenal did with Arteta.

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