Time not on Sarri’s side as daunting City test looms
Chelsea boss launches spirited defence of his stewardship but the end may be nigh
Maurizio Sarri: “We are one point from the top four, on the same as Arsenal, and [people say] Arsenal are doing well,” said Sarri. Photograph: David Klein/Reuters
Maurizio Sarri strides out at Wembley a dead man walking.
He can cling to football’s capacity to shock, and even convince himself an appearance in the Carabao Cup final will shrug Chelsea out of their slump in form. Theirs should be the greater motivation, after all, given the wounds are raw from the six-goal pummelling inflicted by Manchester City only a fortnight ago. Yet, in truth, there is a sense of inevitability about where this is heading.
Passage was negotiated safely, in the end, beyond Malmö in the Europa League on Thursday, with Dynamo Kyiv to come in the last 16, yet the respite seems temporary.
The home support, so vociferous in their dissent a few days previously as the team’s FA Cup defence petered out against Manchester United, had barely acknowledged their head coach, instead joyously latching on to Callum Hudson-Odoi’s rare start or the welcome distraction of the cameos delivered by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ethan Ampadu off the bench. It would be a surprise if any of that trio start tomorrow.
Instead, the fear is of a return to the usual routine, and a reliance on the same senior personnel who have been enduring a crisis of confidence, for the daunting challenge against City. Or, just as ominously, the visit of Tottenham in the Premier League three days later.
Chelsea insist they have not spoken to potential interim managers-in-waiting, even with England coach Steve Holland’s candidacy on a part-time basis until the summer an option they would most likely explore.
But there is a grim acceptance that after the first meek surrender, like those at Arsenal and Bournemouth last month, or a display lacking “soul” – a criticism Sarri used of the capitulation at the Etihad – and the game will be up.
He will wonder how it has come to this, not least because he had enjoyed the best start by a new manager to the Premier League, is approaching the first major final of his coaching career, and has more wins from his first 43 games than Pep Guardiola oversaw with City.
Why does he find himself on the brink while Guardiola was backed to thrive?
“Because he was lucky,” offered Sarri.
“No, you’d have to ask both clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea. But I think that, if you choose Guardiola, you have to wait because the club knows very well that Guardiola needs time. It’s not really very easy for an English team to play that kind of football.”
Sarri, too, needed proper time. And, most likely, vast investment in players more naturally suited to the style of football which attracted Chelsea in the first place. In that respect, the Italian has probably been sold a pup.
Guardiola spent more than £200m on a new defence over his triumphant second season, yet confirmation of Fifa’s two-window transfer ban, even if it ends up being delayed by the appeals process, rather suggests lavish recruitment will have to be put on hold at Chelsea in the near future.
In the meantime, even with the club at pains to insist times have changed since the days when Luiz Felipe Scolari or André Villas-Boas failed to see out the spring of their first season, they do not accept humiliation well.
The head coach preached a sense of realism.
“We are one point from the top four, on the same as Arsenal, and [people say] Arsenal are doing well,” said Sarri.
“So we are doing a little bit better than them because we are in a final, and yet our season is a disaster? I don’t understand. Remember that, last season, this team gained 70 points, not 100. Then, in the summer, we changed everything. So there is another problem to solve. It is not easy.”
That was said from the heart, a rare flash of exasperation at what he considers the unfairness of his lot, though Chelsea’s hierarchy – misguided or not – tend not to like comparisons with Arsenal.
Roman Abramovich has not attended a game in more than a year, though he is apparently as committed as ever. In a perverse way, it might even serve to reassure the club’s disgruntled fanbase of the owner’s long-term commitment if he reverts to type and acts early to quell a crisis.
Not that Sarri is guiltless. His stubbornness in sticking to his tactical approach has bordered on arrogance at times, even with opponents having long since cottoned on to how they can nullify his side.
Everton first smothered Jorginho in mid-November and the Italy midfielder has still to offer any indication he can cope with being closed down – Juan Mata snuffed him out on Monday – with the focus forever drawn to N’Golo Kanté as he scuttles up and down the right, a cherished talent who suddenly finds himself without a natural berth.
“But he has won a World Cup and successive Premier League titles,” pointed out one incredulous journalist last week. “But in another system,” snapped back Sarri.
The self-confessed “dreamer” has distanced himself from the term “Sarri-ball”
“In Italy I never heard it, so I don’t know what Sarri-ball is” – but he has looked rather naive. The football has too often been a plod, lacking the dynamism and aggression that once made Chelsea feared.
It has become far too predictable, not least with his substitutions: a succession of like-for-like replacements that might be telegraphed before kick-off. Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic have swapped on 20 occasions, Pedro and Willian 14 times.
With his team trailing 2-0 to Manchester United in the FA Cup and open revolt having erupted in the stands, he hauled off César Azpilicueta and put on Davide Zappacosta eight minutes from time. With Hudson-Odoi and Olivier Giroud twiddling their thumbs on the bench, it felt like a head coach sticking up two fingers to his detractors on the sidelines.
It has left the squad entering the defining stage of the season shorn of confidence. The fringe players had been gripped by nerves in the opening half-hour against Malmö. Sarri, with that in mind, intends to waive his usual meticulous tactical session with the team today and “will prepare the match in 60 minutes, no more”.
He added: “I don’t want to press them. I want their minds really very free.”
Perhaps that will succeed and some freedom and purpose will return to Chelsea’s game, but that is asking a lot. The build up to Sarri’s first major final has been dreadful. The aftermath may be worse.