Manchester City 6-0 Chelsea: A surprise or a calamity in the making?
While the embarrassing score-line certainly reverberated across the globe, was the game at the Etihad really a surprise or did it just put an exclamation mark to another wrong managerial appointment in West London?
Back in 2016, half of the ‘Big Six’ rang in the changes at the helm. In May of that year, Manchester City had done away with Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester United decided to not renew Van Gaal’s contract and Chelsea endured the infamous ‘Third Season Syndrome’ with Jose Mourinho.
Of the three clubs in question, City went in for Pep, United for Jose and Chelsea for Conte. The West London outfit did reap the immediate rewards of appointing the Italian yet his acrimonious exit again cast a cloud over the club’s relentless pursuit of short-term goals at the cost of sacrificing their long-term vision.
Thus, at the sight of Conte’s first failure in 2017-18, he was inevitably given the boot and another Italian, a polar opposite, was installed in his stead.
Like many an occasion before, Chelsea had again shown naivety when dealing with a manager. The late arrival of Maurizio Sarri meant that he had little time to work on ingraining his philosophy in the pre-season.
Though he enjoyed a decent start to his tenure, everything has turned pear-shaped since the turn of the year with the nadir being the mauling at Manchester City. Yet, if one delves a little deeper into his methods, the time accorded to him and the players at his disposal, one could be forgiven to think that it was indeed a disaster waiting to unravel.
A lot of criticism directed at Sarri has been regarding his reluctance to play N’Golo Kante (the best defensive midfielder on the planet) in his preferred role. The Italian has used the Frenchman in an unfamiliar slot on the right of a midfield three with the latter caught out on the wing more often than ever.
However, let us first understand why Sarri actually favours Jorginho over Kante in the defensive midfield position.
The brand of football Sarri wants to deploy depends on passing teams into submission. Not afraid of passing the ball in a metronomic fashion, the Italian wants his teams to keep hold of the ball till pockets of space open up elsewhere.
Thus, Jorginho is paramount as he slips in between the centre backs, allows the full backs to venture high up the field, entices the opposition onto him before breaking free of the press. Kante is arguably the best in his position yet doesn’t boast of the traits Sarri requires from his deepest lying midfielder.
However, one aspect we mustn’t forget is that all of the above components click into gear only if the other players provide the movement his system craves. Unfortunately for him though, Chelsea has failed to replicate the sort of movement which makes ‘SarriBall’ tough to handle.
A look at Chelsea’s midfield and forward options would show several technically gifted players. Yet, none of them are accustomed to running without the ball in order to create space for others.
Eden Hazard gets attracted to the ball like a magnet while one gets the feeling that Willian always keeps the ball a tad longer than he should’ve. As for the other midfield alternatives, Ross Barkley too likes to play with the ball at his feet while Mateo Kovacic is a complete misfit.
At Napoli, Sarri also had the privilege of quick, marauding full-backs who were useful in the final third. While Marcus Alonso certainly ticks the goal-scoring box, neither him nor Cesar Azpilicueta are athletic enough to go from one end of the pitch to the other in an instant.
Though the acquisition of Higuain has helped the team in its forward movements slightly, the Argentine can surely not be relied upon solely to deliver the goods time and again.
Thus, before one draws too many conclusions about Sarri, one needs to keep in mind that he is only making the best use of a hand he has been dealt.
Moreover, the Premier League has always been a breeding ground for some of the best counter-attacking teams on the planet. In England, managers aren’t shy to cede possession as long as they see a viable option of hurting the opponent on the break.
Hence, when Sarri asks his team to keep the ball for long periods, pushes his team high and encourages the movement they aren’t accustomed to, it exposes his team woefully defensively. Tons of space is left in behind and with Kante trying to provide width on the flank, he is never too close to sniff out the danger from around Jorginho.
Though the issues plaguing Sarri are clearly evident, the Italian hasn’t yet moved to correct them. And while inherent flaws in the philosophy can be gotten around with time, the stubbornness he’s displayed so far comes at a much larger cost.
It pains football enthusiasts to see managers being thrown by the wayside at the drop of the hat. Yet, Chelsea has come to be known as one to always prioritize pragmatism over philosophy.
Any manager, let alone that of Chelsea, would have his task cut out trying to emerge from the rubble of a 6-0 defeat. The West London outfit is notoriously impatient with their managers and legend says that they enjoy a shelf life just a touch longer than a boiled egg. Thus, as unfortunate as it may sound, the City defeat could prove to be the final straw for Sarri.
Though it is better to leave the question of Sarri’s future unanswered for now, one can’t help but wonder if Sarri and Chelsea is just a love story that was never meant to be.
The ultimate purist and the eternal utilitarian club just couldn’t get along. Thus, the annihilation at the Etihad with every passing minute looks like a calamity that was just waiting to hit. And boy, did it hit hard.