Ken Early: Chelsea’s future hasn’t looked so uncertain in 15 years
How long will it take the players to adapt to Maurizio Sarri’s style remains to be seen
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri during the Community Shield final. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
It felt a bit too soon for Manchester City and Chelsea to be contesting the Community Shield at Wembley only three weeks after Hugo Lloris had lifted the World Cup in Moscow. Chelsea certainly looked as though they could have used another week to get ready. City finished 30 points ahead of them last season, and on the strength of Sunday’s game the gap between the sides has only grown.
Of course, Chelsea were missing key players like N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, who all stayed at the World Cup until the last weekend and only return from holiday on Monday, so what happened on Sunday didn’t really matter. Much more significant will be what happens when Maurizio Sarri meets with Courtois and Hazard, hoping to convince them to ignore the advances of Real Madrid and sign up to renewed terms with Chelsea.
Courtois, whose contract expires next year, looks likely to leave. The goalkeeper’s agent, Christophe Henrotay, announced over the weekend that his client was determined to go back to Madrid not because Real are offering him more money - though they are - but for family reasons. “This is a human decision based on someone wanting to be close to his children,” Henrotay explained. “I’m not interested in the agent, I want to hear what Courtois says tomorrow,” was Sarri’s response when asked about it at Wembley, but since it now seems that Courtois can only remain at Chelsea at the cost of bitterly disappointing his offspring, today’s negotiation is likely to prove complicated.
As for the World Cup Silver Ball winner Hazard, who has two years left on his contract, Chelsea are more optimistic about persuading him to stay, perhaps because he has always been one of the more contented and biddable superstars in the game. And yet, though Hazard is less obviously ambitious than almost any of the tiny group of players who share his talent, that doesn’t mean he will be content to spend the rest of his career at a shrinking club. When he signed for Chelsea they had just won the Champions League. Now they have failed even to qualify for that competition in two of the last three seasons. It wasn’t meant to be like this. So, you wonder what Sarri’s pitch to him is going to be.
If Sarri is going to convince him to stay, then he will probably spend a little while talking about Dries Mertens. Mertens is the 5’7” Belgian international team-mate of Hazard that Sarri converted from a ten-goal-a-season winger to a thirty-goal-a-season false nine at Napoli. It is of the most impressive recent cases of a coach liberating reserves of a player’s ability that nobody knew existed.
Hazard is different in that everyone already knows those untapped reserves exist. For all his titles and awards - with Chelsea, he’s won all the domestic trophies, the Europa League and the PFA Player of the Year - there remains the sense that there are still areas of his vast talent left unexplored.
When Guardiola joined Manchester City he had several advantages over Sarri
He has never scored as many as 20 goals in a season with Chelsea, and in an era when the world’s greatest forwards score a goal a game, Hazard’s six-season average with Chelsea is a little under one goal every three games. It’s not just that he has never emulated the scoring rate of players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, or Neymar. He has never even had a season like Mohamed Salah’s 44-goal campaign with Liverpool in 2017-18, or Mertens’ 34-goal rampage with Napoli in 16-17, despite being more talented than either rival. Sarri’s best chance of keeping Hazard may be to persuade him that he is the man to guide him onto that level.
But do Chelsea have the players to help Hazard to get there? The only major signing they have made is Jorginho, who was all set to replace Fernandinho at Manchester City until Sarri’s move to Chelsea was confirmed. The Italian did not look like an instant game-changer at Wembley: lacking intimidating physical qualities, he’s one of those players whose qualities only become apparent when he is at the heart of a functional system, and Chelsea don’t have the structure yet. Against City their passing often meandered about aimlessly, as though they were obeying an instruction to keep possession but didn’t really understand why they were doing it.
How long will it take the players to adapt to Sarri’s style remains to be seen, but history suggests it will take a while. When Guardiola joined Manchester City he had several advantages over Sarri - he had a much bigger reputation, he spoke better English, he had experience of working with a big foreign club, City had better players then than Chelsea do now - and still his first season was mediocre. It’s not easy to teach a squad a complicated new system of play. But Guardiola was sustained in the difficult moments by the certainty that he had the trust and faith of his employers.
Sarri cannot have any such confidence. Roman Abramovich has never shown patience with any manager who did not deliver instant results. Even if he has absolute faith in Sarri right now, that’s no reason to believe he’ll still feel the same way in six months. And for the first time since he took over, there are doubts over Abramovich’s own commitment to the Chelsea project.
In May it was reported that he had taken Israeli citizenship after the Foreign Office had delayed extending his UK visa, then Chelsea announced that their new stadium project had been indefinitely shelved. Chelsea are no longer financially dependent on Abramovich, but without their sugar daddy they are just another well-off Premier League club, not the sort of superclub who get to have things all their own way. Today Sarri will try to sell the future to Hazard, but Chelsea’s future has not looked this uncertain in 15 years.