Time. How often do football managers invoke the need for more of that precious commodity to do their jobs? A philosophy developed over years and possibly decades needs an extended period of time to be that all-pervasive influence that courses through the veins of every person at a football club. One might tire of it eventually as was the case with Wengerball at Arsenal but the biggest nightmare for a manager is for the ideology to be rejected before an attempt to understand and implement it is made. Poor old Maurizio Sarri, in his first season at the club, isn’t under any illusion about what a lot of Chelsea supporters think of Sarriball. They cannot wait for it to be consigned to a dustbin.
Jurgen Klopp recently mentioned that his team have not completed their development yet and he is in his fourth season at Liverpool. He’s been lucky in that his celebrated arrival as a messiah at a club long in the doldrums meant he could take the time he needed. What were thirty years when the title had not been won in twenty-five? A league finish behind Southampton and West Ham in the first season? Sure, Jurgen. Just tell us we’ll do better next year!
Sarri has cast envious glances in the direction of his counterpart all season. No trophy to show for his efforts but so secure in his job, as is Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. Chelsea are 270 hours of football away from a European title and the odds are still on the Italian to be on his way this summer. The accusation has been that he has stuck to a philosophy that visibly doesn’t work. Which is true. He has been dogmatic about how his team play their football. And they have looked terrible playing that way without the players needed to play it.
It is a beautiful system. Sarri’s Napoli came as a breath of fresh air to those bemoaning the paucity of ideas in Italian football. For three years, his side played attractive football based on retaining possession, maintaining a high line and constant movement off the ball. It is a demanding system that involves short and quick passing vertically in the build-up, giving rise to the moniker ‘vertical tiki-taka’. In a project that the legendary Arrigo Sacchi described as a ‘masterpiece’, Napoli’s players combined technical ability with tactical awareness and an immense appetite for hard work all over the field. The high line requires pressure on the ball as soon as it is turned over and pressing is key to the system doing its work.
Which made Sarri the most un-Chelsea like appointment, unless the club were willing to stick with their man and let him initiate a Klopp or Guardiola makeover. He certainly did not have the players at Stamford Bridge to implement his philosophy. The club hierarchy have displayed various virtues over the last decade or so, with the number of trophies won a testament to that, but patience has never been one of them. The last man who tried to bring about a revolution at the club was Andre Villas-Boas and he was chewed up and spat out. Hard work doesn’t sit well with the current lot of players either, borne out by the observations of the two previous managers. To put it simply, Sarri had a chance in hell to make this work.
Watching Chelsea for most of this season has been akin to a switch being flicked on and off. Following a defeat at the hands of Spurs to end an eighteen-game unbeaten run in all competitions, they went through a spiral of highs and lows where the players just did not seem to turn up at certain games. It culminated in an extraordinary League Cup final defeat to Manchester City in which Sarri’s goalkeeper undermined his authority and refused to be substituted. The public backlash against Kepa Arrizabalaga and other players seem to have got them back on board for now, but a revolt is never too far away in a Chelsea dressing room.
When the best player in Eden Hazard and the player who benefits the most in Sarri’s system says that he frustrates all his managers but will not change, that’s the cue for the rest to follow. The inability of Chelsea’s players to sustain their intensity game after game has been cause for concern for a couple of seasons now. Positional play and technical ability can be worked at, but everything falls apart if players do not press or run when they have to.
An interesting dimension has been some fans’ refusal to accept the turgidity that accompanies upheaval. Jorginho, the ‘regista’ brought in from Napoli to bind things together in a complex system which doesn’t have many working components at the moment, is naturally taking time to settle into a new and faster league. He wouldn’t have expected to be booed by his own fans though or accompanied by cheers when taken off in a game. The lack of movement around him has made him look bad at times and while he needs to get better, the same is true for almost everyone around him.
The clamour for Callum Hudson-Odoi to play has been over the top too. In his current stage of development, the only role he could fulfil effectively is Eden Hazard’s on the left and that is not an option. With Sarri’s system focused on creating overloads on the left flank, the right winger needs to hug the sideline, maintain shape and show enormous discipline with his movements. Hudson-Odoi’s direct running style, while celebrated in England, is at direct odds with Sarriball which focusses on the retention of the ball and creation of quality opportunities. Notice how Pep Guardiola coached a few things out of Raheem Sterling in their first season together with great consequences on the next two.
Sarri has played him and Ruben Loftus-Cheek a lot more in recent weeks. Between bending to the supporters’ will and keeping the squad fresh in the end stages of a long season, I am inclined to believe it is mostly because of the latter. The Italian has come out and said that he will not have a Plan B, not until Plan A has been done well anyway, and he will not be pushed into decisions he does not want to make.
However, it is going to take at least a couple of windows for Plan A to bear fruition and FIFA are yet to rule on Chelsea’s appeal over a transfer ban. There are champion players at Stamford Bridge still and let’s not forget that this squad won the title in 2017, but they are more suited to a different playing style. N’Golo Kante typifies this best. He has a lot to offer but it is what he doesn’t that undermines Sarriball. Given this backdrop, something has to give.
Given all of Sarri’s troubles, he has still done well to get his team to a Cup final with another one possibly to follow. It would be similar to Klopp’s achievements in his first season at Liverpool and the London club will definitely do better than eighth in the league. Time though has never been on any manager’s side at Chelsea and Mauricio Sarri will most likely make way for someone else next season unless better sense prevails. If he does leave, one will be left with the feeling many had at the beginning of the season. He was the right man at the wrong club.