It was in Milano Marittima, the beach resort on Italy’s Adriatic coast, and the venue was the Perla Verde hotel. Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary former Milan manager, who is a mentor to both of them, was also there and, in Sarri’s words, it was a “very, very fun dinner – to hear Arrigo speak is always exceptional”.
Sarri was not the Chelsea manager at the time. Indeed, he was not the manager of anybody, with Napoli – the team he had driven so impressively over the previous three seasons – having replaced him with Carlo Ancelotti. Yet Sarri felt like the Chelsea manager-in-waiting and, as such, it was inconceivable he did not discuss the club and the Premier League with Guardiola.
It was a curious period for Sarri because, weirdly, he remained under contract at Napoli. But as Chelsea worked out how they might part company with Antonio Conte, it was plain that Sarri was the manager they wanted. They would eventually get him on 14 July.
What did Guardiola say to Sarri? According to the latter, a few things stood out. Guardiola noted how he had endured problems during his first season at City, 2016-17, with the inference being it required time to adapt to the demands of English football. Guardiola’s main point concerned the standard of the competition. “He told me that here in England, it is very difficult,” Sarri said. “The level is very high.”
Yet Guardiola appeared to frame it in a positive way. “He said that football is football everywhere and, sure, if I had the chance to come to England, I should take it,” Sarri said. “Every coach in this moment wants to work in England. The Premier League is the best in the world.”
Sarri is about to find out just how difficult it can be. It remains almost impossible to say how serious a game the Community Shield is. Do goals scored in it count towards players’ end-of-season tallies? Is it a valid trophy? Some will say yes. Remember how José Mourinho waved three fingers in the air after his Manchester United team had won the Europa League in 2016-17? The Community Shield certainly counted in the José Treble. Others are less sure.
But the bottom line is that this is Guardiola’s City, the team that amassed a record 100 points on their way to the title last season, and they represent the most imposing of opponents. Sarri had described Guardiola as a “genius” at his Stamford Bridge unveiling while he reflected on Friday that his friend was also “unfortunately the best coach in the world now”.
The pair’s friendship has been born out of respect for each other’s playing styles – both prioritise high pressing, short passing, attacking football – but Sarri is conscious of the gap that separated City from Chelsea last season. It stood at 30 points. Closing it will be far from straightforward and Sarri noted on more than one occasion that Guardiola has worked with his squad for two years whereas he has been at Chelsea for two and a half weeks.
Sarri said with a smile that he wanted to “stay here for 10 years”. He does not need to be told that, over the past 10 years, the club have employed eight different managers. It will take time for Sarri to implement his 4-3-3 system, particularly as the players were used to playing with three at the back under Conte, but how long?
Conte’s move to a three-man defence clicked almost overnight and Sarri mentioned how his approach had begun to bear fruit after only three games at Napoli. What he would give for something similar now.
Sarri has seemingly won an early battle. He declared himself unhappy on Wednesday at Willian’s late return for pre-season work after passport issues and this is a player that has been courted by Real Madrid, among others. But Sarri has since cleared the air with him.
“I spoke with him on Thursday about his lateness – not about his future,” Sarri said. “It was a positive conversation. There is not a Willian problem. He will stay. I am very confident about that.”
Sarri must now convince Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois that their futures lie under him at Chelsea. They are due to report to Cobham on Saturday, along with N’Golo Kanté, Olivier Giroud, Michy Batshuayi and Gary Cahill – players whose countries went deep into the World Cup – and it is clear that Sarri wants to work with what he has rather than import from elsewhere.
According to Gonzalo Higuaín, the striker who has moved from Juventus to Milan and previously played under Sarri at Napoli, his former manager wanted to take him to Chelsea. “Sarri was the only one who wanted me at Chelsea whereas everyone wanted me at Milan,” said Higuaín.
Sarri said little on incoming transfers, beyond the admission that he thought the club “need something – maybe a midfielder with different characteristics”. The winger Pedro has signed a one-year contract extension to 2020 and Sarri simply wants to generate momentum; to persuade the key players that something is brewing.
The Community Shield could serve a useful purpose. “It will be my first match at Wembley and it’s important to have a trophy immediately,” Sarri said. “But at this moment it’s also important to perform. I hope to see another step forward from my team.”