Sarri pleads for patience in Chelsea's first blip of his reign
Two defeats in three league games not ideal preparation for a clash with rampant City
Maurizio Sarri: “We need to change the mentality, not because the old mentality was bad. But it’s not suitable with the new way of playing.” Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters
Maurizio Sarri has made it clear he will need time, rather than money, if he is to hoist Chelsea back into contention as title challengers and has pointed to Pep Guardiola’s early toils at Manchester City as evidence that patience will be key.
In what effectively amounted to a first public plea to the hierarchy to retain faith in his long-term vision, Sarri claimed football might have been denied “the best team in the world” had City reacted more ruthlessly to Guardiola finishing third, 15 points off the top, in his first campaign in England.
The club subsequently spent more than £200m in the summer of 2017 to speed progress and transform them into the dominant force in English football, though Sarri believes he may need only one key addition once his players properly adapt.
Chelsea have a point more than City did at this stage of the season in 2016, going into the teams’ meeting at Stamford Bridge on Saturday night, but are enduring the first blip of Sarri’s tenure with two defeats in their last three league matches.
The loss at Molineux in midweek left the manager questioning his players’ attitude, suggesting some had experienced “a blackout” after Wolves’ equaliser, and served to illustrate how far they have to go to compete persuasively for the title.
Sarri always expected to endure difficult periods as he sought to implement his style of play on what largely is his predecessor Antonio Conte’s squad, and had spoken to Guardiola over the summer about the issues which flared over the former Barcelona manager’s first year in the Premier League.
“He told me the first season in England is really very difficult,” Sarri said.
“For him, it was impossible to improve 20 players in the first season. He told me you have to work only on 14 players otherwise you are in trouble. You need too much time to improve all the squad.
“In England, it’s really very difficult; you have to play every three days, you have no time to work or improve the team, so it’s really a very difficult situation. You need a season just to understand the real situation.”
Chelsea, who appointed Sarri on a three-year contract, are not renowned for their patience under Roman Abramovich’s ownership, with managers invariably ushered out the door whenever qualification for the Champions League feels threatened.
Sarri, asked whether he expected the hierarchy to grant him the time he needs, said: “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the club. But you have to hope ... What would have happened if Guardiola had no time in City? Maybe the best team in the world wouldn’t have been City in the last year.
“I don’t know. It’s not my problem. My problem is to improve my players, to solve the situation, to try to gain a lot of points. The club will decide what is better for them.”
Sarri does not believe he would require the same level of investment as City at the end of his first season if, by then, his methods on the training pitch have made an impression.
“We need to work, we need to improve, we need to understand very well the style of playing,” he added. “We need to change the mentality, not because the old mentality was bad. But it’s not suitable with the new way of playing.
“Then, after all this, maybe you do need one player in the market. You cannot think that you can buy 11 new players without problems. If you do, the problems will be the same: you’d have to create a new mentality and a new style of playing.
“We need to arrive at 95 per cent of our potential and then we can get the last 5 per cent with a new player. With one new player, not 11 new players.”
Manchester City, meanwhile, travel to Chelsea not yet ready to risk Sergio Agüero as he recovers from an abductor muscle strain and with Pep Guardiola weighing up the pros and cons of using Raheem Sterling in a more central role. Kevin de Bruyne remains an absentee.
The City manager would not reveal his intended line-up but has three in-form wingers in Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sané, while Gabriel Jesus has so far failed to make the most of Agüero’s absence.
“Raheem can play in many positions,” Guardiola said. “I prefer him on the wing, but he did not always play there for Liverpool. ”
Guardiola is aware of the significance of his side’s visit to Chelsea. They are the last top-five team City have to visit, and they have already recorded wins at Arsenal and Tottenham and secured a draw at Anfield.
In terms of the recent past, Guardiola said the 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge in September last season was “an important step”. City had been beaten by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea at the Etihad the season before, a result that saw Guardiola’s first campaign in England begin to unravel, and knew they needed to make a statement against the defending champions.
“Winning there last season felt like more than three points,” Guardiola said. “It showed we could do it, the first important game away against the last champions. We could say after that we could go anywhere and deliver a good performance.
“Since then we have continued in that vein and that is what makes me most proud, the consistency we have shown in the last 15 or 16 months. Stamford Bridge is never an easy place to go and get a result, I have been there a few times and lost, and this game is our last one away from home against one of the five hypothetical strong teams in the league.
“After that we will have played them all, apart from Manchester United. We have not been quite as solid away from home as we have on our own ground, but we have competed like a team and that is a good thing.”
Saturday’s 5.30pm kick-off brings together City’s Fernandinho and Jorginho of Chelsea, the latter Brazilian the one Guardiola tried to buy in the summer as an eventual replacement for the former.
“He is a Chelsea player now so I cannot speak too much about him, but I respect his decision and wish him all the best,” Guardiola said. “He had a choice to make but he knew Maurizio Sarri very well and Chelsea are an exceptional club. I’m not going to say it is a bad decision.”
Jorginho might have had to bide his time a little in Manchester. Fernandinho is not quite ready to be replaced yet, though he is 33 and City remain vulnerable should injury deprive them of one of their most influential players.
“What Fernandinho has done for this club is incredible, not just this season but all the years we have been together,” Guardiola said.
“We have that guy to thank for most of the good things we have in this moment. Very few players can do what he does, he can do virtually everything on the pitch.”
Guardiola was asked how he would react to a possible ban on City competing in the Champions League – a suggestion made in the margins of a Uefa executive committee meeting in Dublin this week.
“We will not be banned. That’s what I think. I trust what my chairman and CEO have explained to me. If it does happen we will accept it and move forward.”