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Has Sarri done enough for Chelsea to escape the firing streak?

The performance of Chelsea under the management of Sarri has been decent but has he done enough from his side, or are there still a few areas he should work upon. What could be the reasons for their lagging performance?

Last updated: 27.05.2019
Maurizio Sarri | Sports Social Blog

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Long before the Arabs and the Qataris invested in football clubs and made them multi-billion dollar institutions with a fast-track to domestic domination, a certain Russian-Israeli billionaire became the owner of a London based club, and the rest, as they say, is history. While the football fans have seen footballing culture developing around the Bridge ever since the club was founded in 1905, it always struggled to reach the pinnacles and conquer football, even though it managed to remain relevant for the better part of a century. Yet, it’s actual rise to fame started post-2003 when Bates sold the club for £140 million.

The success was almost instantaneous. £100 million were spent on new players and even though they failed to win a trophy in the first year, Mourinho guided them to successive league titles in the next two seasons. Since then, it has won almost every trophy on offer including the Europa and Champions League. But what has been the club’s most striking feature is its short-sightedness and Abramovich’s tendency to change managers quicker than lightning. So far, the club has already employed 14 different managers in his era, with Mourinho having two separate stints. The average works out to almost a firing per season. Now, with Maurizio Sarri not having achieved what was expected of him, it begs the question, has he done enough to escape the owner’s wrath?

The first premise of the argument itself is whether to consider the Blues’ season a failure in the first place. Last year, Chelsea had a decent season with Antonio Conte in charge. They won the FA Cup and lost in the semifinals of the EFL Cup. However, their league campaign was a disappointment, ending 5th and failing to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, while also suffering from an early Round of 16 exits in Europe, losing 4-1 on aggregate to Barcelona.


Compare it to this season, and Chelsea reached the FA Cup semi-finals and the League Cup final, only losing it on the English lottery— the penalties. But this season, they also managed to reach the Europa League final and have managed to clinch a Champions League spot by finishing third. This is considering Conte believed in a defensive system and is probably the most astute manager in shutting down the opposition, a major reason why he is currently managing a similarly structured Juventus. He played with 5 men in the back, compared to Sarri who lines up in a 4-3-3 and is a follower of the Bielsa Academy- fast, slick, attacking football based on control of the possession. Hence, it is really difficult to see how this failure has been a reason, unless you consider the unrealistic expectations of the fans on his arrival, hoping he will be able to recreate Napoli level performances in his very first season. This does not mean though that there are areas which can definitely be worked upon by Sarri, in order to match those expectations gradually. Let’s explore these reasons.  

While Sarri’s system worked wonders at Napoli, he has failed to adapt his game style to the requirements of his team and the league. This comes as a bit surprising since Sarri has successfully managed to adapt in the past. When at Empoli and facing relegation threats, he managed to shape his team defensively while focusing on going forward on the counters, realising he does not have players he needs to play fluid football. When he made the switch to Napoli, he made Jorginho the centrepiece of his master plan and started playing football he has now become known for. However, here in London, he has failed to use his players efficiently. He has arguably the world’s best CDM at his disposal and yet he insists to keep playing him in an offensive role. This renders his ability to track the runs of the opposition’s playmaker practically ineffective. Later on in games, instead of switching to a more defensive system, he keeps making his team bombard forward and while this is an indication of courageous football, it is impractical and is not result oriented. It has cost him various teams through the course of the season, and frankly, no one remembers what brand of football a team played until and unless they cap it off with results- the prime reason why Pep is so highly renowned.

Secondly, his game has become too predictable for the opposition. He channels his game through Jorginho and believes in a slow build up with triangular passing structures. Pep Guardiola used Fernandinho effectively along with full backs acting as midfielders when the forward midfielders pushed wide to disrupt the passing channels and cutting off the anchor’s options, leading to complete midfield domination and a 6-0 demolition in February. Sarri could have used a Kante-Kovacic/ Ruben Loftus-Cheek double pivot to prevent the likes of KDB and Gundogan from attacking. This is just one of the many examples throughout the season of when Sarri’s stubborn approach has cost Chelsea heavily. While Chelsea’s raw talent and decent tactics manage to overpower the lower table teams and mostly the mid-table teams, its dismal record against the top 6 is a reflection of how predictable Sarri has been to the other top class managers. Out of a possible 30 points from 10 fixtures, Chelsea only managed to score 12.

However, it has not been all Sarri’s fault. This is quite possibly the weakest Chelsea squad of the Roman era and while it was still suited for a 5 man defence formation, it fails terribly in a 4-3-3. Alonso at full back had a disastrous season, showing he is way more suited for the wingback position in which he excelled the previous season. Azpilicueta, even though a wonderful defender, has simply become too old and lost too much pace to keep up with the Premier League wingers. In David Luiz, Chelsea may have the best ball-playing defender in the Premier League, but then he is just that- he simply lacks the acumen to be a central defender, always lunging into early challenges or being found out of position. Only in their previous match, his poor defending was the main reason why Chelsea conceded against Frankfurt, though they, fortunately, managed to win the tie on penalties. Kante is simply not his type of player, whereas his attack lacks initiative. Willian has not even come close to replicating his form of the previous seasons, whereas all the strikers have failed miserably, namely Giroud, Morata and now Higuain. Hazard has been the only shining light throughout, and now he is all set to leave too.

But then again, Sarri could have solved some of these problems, if not all, had it not been for his stubbornness. He has failed to place trust in the youth and give them proper chances, even when the regulars were performing nowhere close to the mark expected of them. He kept playing Pedro and Willian, even when a young Callum Hudson-Odoi was showing a lot of promise. Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu were given limited choices in spite of their defensive plight, and Marcos Alonso played as a winger in a fullback position for far too long when Emerson Palmieri was waiting to replace him on the bench. All of those young talents were given a decent amount of chances in the latter stages albeit it was a bit too late for the bid for the league title was over long ago by then.  

Now, while as a manager it has not been a great season for Maurizio despite having been able to churn out satisfactory results, he faces an even greater challenge next season. With the possibility looming large that Eden might leave and a transfer ban imposed on the club, they will have to again rely on the old crop of players to turn up. No big team in Europe is as reliant on a single player as Chelsea, and they might just crumble with his departure. Sarri can do little about this, for his players have lacked the will and determination to fight for results. Chelsea is desperately in need of a strong leader on and off the pitch who can motivate players again to work towards their goal. While Sarri’s huge ego is public knowledge, his departure may come quicker than expected if he fails to control the dressing room. How do Chelsea wish they had a player like Cech or Terry in the dressing room right now. While Dave can be that guy, his declining performances make him hard to be that dominating.

Modern managers can very broadly be divided into two categories- the Pep kind whose primary aim is to play a brand of attacking and beautiful football that would be appreciated by the fans, and then work on getting the results simultaneously. For this, they need a certain typeset of a footballer for every position and hence feel the need to splash money on new signings- why Quique Setien has failed at Betis even though he has excellent tactics, while Ten Hag has succeeded because he inherited the kind of players his system needs. The second kind is the Mourinho type- result-oriented managers who are excellent at working with low resource teams and playing to the squad’s strength, regardless of how unattractive the brand of football may be, with his success at Porto and Inter a testimony to the fact. Sarri clearly belongs to the first kind, and the board has failed to provide him with the proper signings to fit into his system. Jorginho is the only midfielder that is his kind, and now Higuain is only his second desired signing. Pulisic’ arrival next season may boost things, but he simply needs more technical players in his squad to succeed.

That being said, a system like him cannot be taught in a day and needs to be slowly integrated into the team, and often leads to a poor season or two followed by long term success. Even Pep Guardiola ‘failed’ at City in his first season, only finishing third, while Sarri himself struggled early on in his first season at Napoli before exceeding expectations once Allan was signed and instantly made a part of the team, while Dries Mertens perfected the role of a false 9. As unfortunate as it may be though, his future at the club might be dependent on the fact whether he manages to win against Arsenal in Baku on the 29th unless Abramovich decides that this man is worth having the patience for, which he definitely is. He is bound to succeed ultimately, if his record is anything to go by, and if he does stay, it would be interesting to see how he shapes up the future of  Chelsea.

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