Maurizio Sarri has taken Chelsea to third in the Premier League and a European final, so what’s the problem? Adam Bate examines a project that is failing to convince many of the club’s supporters…
Carlo Ancelotti tells a story about the time that he was summoned to Roman Abramovich’s house to receive a dressing down from the Chelsea owner who was unhappy with the team’s latest performance.
It was a red flag for the Italian coach and not just because this came just one game into the season. Chelsea had actually won the game 6-0.
That was almost nine years ago now but it is tale worth retelling because it provides a clue as to how the 6-0 defeat to Manchester City in February is likely to have gone down with the Chelsea hierarchy. Few fancied Ancelotti’s compatriot, Maurizio Sarri, to make it to the end of the week at that stage let alone be preparing for a European final three months on.
Sat in the press conference after the very next home fixture – a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United that saw Chelsea eliminated from the FA Cup – it felt like the end game had arrived. The Stamford Bridge crowd, particularly the more vocal elements in the Matthew Harding Stand, had let Sarri know exactly what they thought of him, in particularly forceful terms.
Was he worried about the fans? “No, I am worried about the results not about the fans.” Was he worried about losing job? “I was really worried when I was in league two in Italy, not now.” When a similar question was put to him again, he replied: “It’s not my problem.”
But it would be wrong to say Sarri had completely given up. He was frustrated not resigned. The one thing that seemed certain was that he was determined not to change the style of football. What appeared to annoy him most was that Chelsea were still not playing how he wanted them to play. “At the moment we are playing another football,” he complained.
And yet, what we have seen since, the mini-revival of sorts in which Chelsea went from sixth to third, leapfrogging Arsenal and Manchester United, while overhauling a 10-point deficit on Tottenham, could not accurately be described as a triumph of Sarri methods. Perhaps the bigger problem for the Chelsea coach is that there has almost been a rejection of them.
Supporters unconvinced by Sarri
Sections of the support remain unconvinced. After a long wait, Sarri did entrust Callum Hudson-Odoi with four consecutive Premier League starts prior to his injury, while the popular Ruben Loftus-Cheek also forced his way into the line-up for each of those games too. But their performances only added to the sense that they should have played sooner.
Even with the Europa League semi-final second leg against Eintracht Frankfurt in the balance, there were boos when Loftus-Cheek was replaced by Ross Barkley. Somewhat ironically, supporters would have preferred to see Mateo Kovacic depart – the very change that had garnered jeers for its predictability earlier in the campaign. Trust has been lost.
When you’re in love, the idiosyncrasies can be passed off as charming foibles. When you’re not, every little thing begins to grate. It’s a problem for Sarri because management is one big confidence trick and many of these supporters have long since lost confidence. Is it possible to come back from that? Possibly. As long as it’s only the fans who’ve been lost.
The stats behind Sarri’s style
Examine the underlying statistics from the first 26 Premier League games of the season, culminating in that thrashing at the Etihad Stadium, and there were at least indications of what Sarri was trying to do – as well as where it was going wrong for his Chelsea team. Back then, the players were very clearly attempting to implement his ideas out on the pitch.
There was passing and lots of it. Only City themselves put together more sequences of 10 passes or more. The difference was that nowhere near enough of Chelsea’s ended in a shot. They were pressing too, restricting the progress of opposition sequences more than any other team, allowing them to start their own attacks closer to the opposition goal.
But despite Sarri’s insistence that he wouldn’t deviate from his ideas, Chelsea have changed since then. By the time of the rematch with City in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley, there was more than a hint of the old Chelsea about it. They defended that bit deeper and more doggedly. They surrendered possession, going longer and removing some of the risk.
It was enough to take Chelsea to a penalty shootout and Sarri to within a kick or two of his first trophy as a manager. But curiously, what might very nearly have been his finest hour, was seen as a humiliation instead and not just because of the overt erosion of his authority that occurred in the final moments of extra-time when Kepa refused to be substituted.
This no longer looked like a team trying to play his football. Pragmatism had kicked in. These players did not want to be humbled in a cup final and they took practical measures to prevent it happening by doing it their way. Sarri was an observer, still a manic figure on the touchline, but one whose ideas no longer appeared to be being implemented.
What happened to Sarri-ball?
In the dozen Premier League games that Chelsea have played since then, the statistics show that they are a very different team. The number of lengthy passing sequences per game has dipped by almost 50 per cent but there is more purpose to those remaining sequences now.
Indeed, the total number of pass sequences ending in either a shot or with Chelsea having possession of the ball inside the opposition area is almost exactly the same as before. In other words, they have simply cut out much of the pointless passing that was happening.
To further illustrate this point, Chelsea are making around 100 fewer total passes per game than they used to, but those shed passes are making little impact at the sharp end because the number of passes into the box and touches inside the box have actually both increased.
Jorginho, the symbol of Sarri’s football, had been the central figure during the first part of the season, even breaking a Premier League passing record against West Ham in September. But he is now being bypassed more than before. The midfielder has gone from averaging 85 passes per 90 minutes to 66 and that reflects the team’s change of approach.
Has Sarri’s style been abandoned?
Whether this change has occurred because Sarri’s style of football is being refined or it has occurred because Sarri’s style of football has been abandoned is not entirely clear. But it is a question well worth asking given that Sarri’s future at the club is so uncertain. After all, the whole reason that Chelsea brought him in was because of this big idea.
Other coaches have well-defined tactics too. The two men who have taken their respective teams to the Champions League final, for example. But both Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are also famed for their winsome personalities. They are coaches who inspire their players through the force of that personality as well as their tactical excellence.
Sarri never purported to possess that kind of charm. He was hired because he had a vision. Whether there was ever the unanimous appetite for that vision at a club whose modern identity has been built on speed, strength and the counter-attack is up for debate. But Chelsea, not for the first time, aspired to something that was very clearly different.
That clarity is not so apparent now and if Sarri’s football does not appear in Baku then the situation at Stamford Bridge is only likely to become murkier. The crowd seem unconvinced and maybe they are not alone. Sarri has taken Chelsea to third in the table and to two cup finals. Perhaps this is his success. It just doesn’t really feel like it. To him or the supporters.
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