Too late to say Sarri? No one is innocent in Chelsea’s current crisis
On January 15, 2017, Manchester City lost 4-0 at Goodison Park, marking the lowest moment of Pep Guardiola’s reign in charge. City conceded their second goal in the 47th minute, and briefly rallied before two late goals condemned them to shambolic defeat. It pushed City out of the top four, and was the club’s fifth league defeat of the season.
Just as telling as City’s on-pitch struggles was the media reaction it provoked. Guardiola’s pursuit of success was questioned, but so too was the ability of certain key players to meet the new manager’s requirements. Guardiola was accused of stubbornness in refusing to budge from his philosophy. If the players weren’t up to the system, shouldn’t the system be altered to cope? Fourteen months later, Guardiola admitted that he feared for his future at that juncture.
On January 30, 2019, Chelsea lost 4-0 to Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium, marking the (then) lowest moment of Maurizio Sarri’s reign in charge. Chelsea conceded their second goal in the 47th minute, and briefly rallied before two late goals condemned them to shambolic defeat. It pushed Chelsea out of the top four, and was the club’s fifth league defeat of the season.
Just as telling as the Blues' on-pitch struggles was the media reaction it provoked. Sarri’s pursuit of success was questioned, but so too was the ability of certain key players to meet the new manager’s requirements. Sarri was accused of stubbornness in refusing to budge from his philosophy. If the players weren’t up to the system, shouldn’t the system be altered to cope? Fourteen months later... well, who knows? But Sarri looks unlikely to last another 14 days.
Laying the groundwork
The comparison is far from perfect. Manchester City had long planned for Guardiola’s arrival, and Guardiola had an extensive body of work that proved his acumen as a natural manager for any elite club with a long-term vision.
Despite City’s poor form during that season, you struggled to find a City first-team player who had lost faith in Guardiola. Sarri is struggling to make a similar case. Reports suggest that several senior Chelsea stars are unhappy with the coach’s training and man management. There is no dressing room in English football that carries as much influence.
But then Sarri might also claim that Guardiola had a far more comfortable route back to redemption. Manchester City certainly had a stronger squad than Chelsea do now, and also faced less competition for a top-four place than Chelsea do in 2018/19. Guardiola’s team took 2.05 points per game that season and finished third. Chelsea are currently averaging 1.92 and are sixth.
Sarri is far from blameless in this Chelsea mid-season mess, and may well lose his job after the EFL Cup final or the Premier League fixture against Tottenham if Chelsea lose either.
He has twice called out his players in public – always a risky move when you are yet to earn their total respect – and his substitutions demonstrate a comical lack of imagination; roll out that Einstein misquote about insanity again. Sarri’s refusal to give minutes to Callum Hudson-Odoi has exacerbated a problem of his club’s own making.
But then the Italian can also point accusatory fingers at those who sit above him. Chelsea spent last summer courting perhaps the most obvious ‘philosophy’ manager outside of English football. They finally appointed him less than three weeks before the Community Shield and expected him to hit the ground running.
In the summer that Guardiola joined City they signed John Stones, Leroy Sané, Ilkay Gundogan and Claudio Bravo, and Pep was permitted to spend another £260m on his squad the next year.
Sarri was given Jorginho and told to recreate a Napoli system that had four or five key components. Kepa Arrizabalaga replaced Thibaut Courtois, Mateo Kovacic was an on-loan afterthought and Rob Green was the only other arrival. Chelsea finished 30 points behind top spot last season.
Chelsea’s squad is not fit for Sarri’s purpose. Marcos Alonso is a disastrous full-back for his tactical vision, and he is missing the advanced central midfielder that Marek Hamsik played so beautifully as. Eden Hazard could well be Sarri’s new Dries Mertens given time, but the Belgian's potential departure means that Chelsea have made his contentment their number one priority.
Instead, Chelsea have this hybrid style, neither fish nor fowl. If Sarri’s style doesn't fit Hazard and N’Golo Kante, Chelsea’s two best players, then why appoint him in the first place? Accusations of stubbornness carry some weight, but then the same was said about Guardiola.
One argument that really doesn’t carry weight is that Sarri is unable to motivate his players to produce a big performance in his style. Anyone at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea beat Manchester City in December can testify to that.
Kante scored in his advanced role and no Chelsea player created more chances than him. Hazard assisted both goals as a false nine. The defence was resolute. It was one of the most complete team performances of this Premier League season, the only time City have lost a Premier League game without scoring since… Goodison Park in January 2017.
Comparisons with Guardiola do Sarri no favours, but they do raise questions of Chelsea’s commitment to this supposed new era of long-termism. Sarri never pretended that he would recreate Napoli’s vivacious style immediately, and indeed any homework done by Chelsea would have revealed that teething problems had to be overcome at the San Paolo despite their second place in Serie A in 2015/16.
Chelsea’s hierarchy have been spooked by the fevered reaction of the Stamford Bridge support, and nobody is condoning ignoring that view entirely. But Chelsea supporters have been spoilt by the successes of managerial short-termism. Sarri always represented the opposite.
If you are prepared to abandon your long-term project with your team in a domestic cup final, favourites to win the Europa League and one point off the top four having finished fifth the previous season, your heart probably wasn’t in it in the first place. Sarri has made plenty of missteps on this short journey towards Premier League ignominy, but that must not let Chelsea off the hook. They are complicit in this failure of mixed messages.