With Maurizio Sarri, Roman Abramovich finally has his ideal Chelsea side

On 1 July 2003, Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who got his start in business selling everything from rubber ducks to concrete mix, changed English football forever.

It was in that moment, in the late night shake of a hand between Abramovich and Ken Bates, that the Premier League became a global league.

Almost everything that has happened at the top of the English game over the past 15 years can be traced back to that moment, when Abramovich agreed to buy Chelsea for £140 million.

The Premier League had seen millionaire owners before. Chelsea themselves were owned by a millionaire, Bates, before Abramovich pitched up. Manchester United were the subject of a takeover bid from Rupert Murdoch around the turn of the millennium.

But Abramovich was the first of a new breed of owner, the first of a breed that saw Premier League clubs merely as play-things for the super rich, as a way to exert international influence.

Whether it’s the Glazers, the Abu Dhabi royal family or Abramovich, English football has now become the domain of those looking for much more than just three points and silverware.

Few modern era Premier League owners are as exacting as Abramovich, though. He has always been a very public figurehead as Chelsea owner. Some owners like to hide in the shadows, but the Russian made a point for years of being seen in his private box in the middle tier of the West Stand at Stamford Bridge.

When Chelsea won their first ever Champions League title in 2012, it was Abramovich who led Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, Frank Lampard and co. up the steps to lift the famous old trophy.

Abramovich has his finger in everything at Stamford Bridge and what the Russian says usually goes. But over the 15 years of his ownership, Abramovich has been denied one thing – an attractive, entertaining Chelsea team. Now, however, he has Maurizio Sarri and he is delivering his boss the kind of side he has always wanted.

It was presumed that ‘Sarri-ball’ would take some time to be implemented at Chelsea, particularly with Antonio Conte only leaving the club in pre-season. And yet Sarri has already forged a side that reflects his own identity as a coach, as demonstrated by the Blues’ performances in the opening five games of the season. They might even be title challengers.

Not since Andre Villas-Boas has Abramovich made such a bold pick as Chelsea manager.

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Sarri is a volatile character, the kind of person who has been embroiled in homophobic and sexist controversies in the past few years, but he offers Abramovich something he has wanted for his team for a long, long time – a high-pressing, high-intensity team who are well-drilled in their responsibilities, but free in their creativity.

The appointment of Villas-Boas back in 2011 was Abramovich’s attempt to move on from the conservative, defensive identity Jose Mourinho had forged for Chelsea in his first spell there.

The Portuguese coach, who rose to prominence by enjoying European success with Porto, couldn’t escape the comparisons with his compatriot, but he was the guy Abramovich hired to bring modern, attractive football to Stamford Bridge.

Villas-Boas, of course, crashed and burned as Chelsea manager and with it so did Abramovich’s ambitions to turn the Blues into the Premier League’s most enthralling outfit. Roberto Di Matteo, Rafael Benitez, Mourinho (for a second spell), Guus Hiddink (also for a second spell) and Antonio Conte have all come and gone in the time since, all tracing the lines of compact, conservative football that have railroaded Chelsea for the past decade and a half.

But even in the moments of great triumph, Abramovich never let go of his wish to see more entertaining football from his own team. When Chelsea visited Camp Nou in the semi finals of the 2011/12 Champions League, it is believed he told all at the club to take notes.

In essence, Abramovich wanted to visit the factory and come away with the secret recipe. Chelsea went on to beat Barcelona that night, but the fascination with the Catalans’ trademark style of play remained.

The story goes that Abramovich wanted Pep Guardiola himself. Some say he was obsessed with hiring the former Barca coach, and had Chelsea not sacked Mourinho midway through the 2015/16 season, when Guardiola was looking to move on from Bayern Munich, the Catalan coach might well have pitched up at Stamford Bridge rather than taking over at Manchester City.

As it was, Guardiola didn’t want to manage under an owner with such an itchy trigger finger and Abramovich has been forced to watch from a distance as the man he badly wanted to be Chelsea manager has forged City into the team he always wanted Chelsea to be.

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Man City’s record-breaking run to the Premier League title last season brought joy to many, but Abramovich presumably watched with gritted teeth, at least a hint of exasperation.

Sarri is not Guardiola, but he is perhaps the closest thing Abramovich could have found. There are overlaps between the two men’s philosophies.

The starkest illustration of this came in the summer when both Chelsea and Man City targeted Napoli midfielder Jorginho. Guardiola thought he had a deal with the midfield pass master, only for Jorginho to be lured to Chelsea by his former boss, Sarri.

They like the same sort of players and favour the same sort of football. Guardiola might have Sarri beaten in the style stakes, or in the career trophy count, but the two men are of the same footballing school of thought, with the former even claiming that he will “learn a lot” from his new Italian counterpart this season.

Of course, there is another side to this story. Sarri’s appointment at Chelsea came just as reports of Abramovich’s waning interest in the club started to surface, with an announcement made in May that the club was putting on hold its plans to redevelop Stamford Bridge. That was interpreted in some quarters to be a response to delays experienced by Abramovich over an application for a UK investor’s visa.

This is where things get a little messy. The delay in renewing Abramovich’s visa coincided with an increase in diplomatic tensions between the UK and Russia, with some speculating that the two issues are in some way conflated.

Whatever the true explanation, Abramovich hasn’t been seen at a Chelsea game this season, with some reports even stating that he would be open to selling the club.

There would be irony in that if things were to play out that way. In Sarri, Abramovich finally has the kind of manager he’s longed for. His Chelsea team, at long last, are the attractive, entertaining team he’s desired for 15 years. Now doesn’t seem like the time to sell up.

Nobody from Chelsea need take notes at the Camp Nou any longer. In fact, if notes are being taken, it’d more likely be Barcelona’s at Stamford Bridge.

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