Sarri takes control again as Chelsea try to salvage their season
No less than a week ago, discontent was brewing at the Chelsea camp. It is a club famous for hiring and firing; the managerial role at Stamford Bridge is no doubt one of the highest-pressure jobs in football.
It is no surprise then, that after the embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Bournemouth and 6-0 at the Etihad Stadium, amidst a run of 5 wins in 12 games since the turn of the year, many were clamoring for Maurizio Sarri to leave.
The Italian himself seemed at a loss of words.
“I don’t know what has happened but at this moment we are in trouble,” he said after the Manchester City game, “I am doing my best and I’m trying to get the players to do their best but at the moment I can only say sorry because in the last three away matches we played very badly.”
Fans, the media, the board, and the dressing room are typically not interested in vague apologies. The only job a manager has is to manage. If he can't even do that, maybe he isn’t the man Chelsea need.
Sarri has been criticized for failing to motivate his players and not having a back-up plan. He has only tried his favored 4-3-3 at the west London club. The likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi have spent far too much time warming the bench. Attack-minded defenders like David Luiz and Marcos Alonso have been allowing too many goals.
A good manager, of course, must display flexibility. Sarri knew he wasn’t getting a pre-season to induct players into his system. The board at Chelsea isn’t famous for letting managers call the shots in the transfer window either. “You’ve got to adapt instead of complaining,” was the incoming wisdom from pubs, “If the players aren’t fitting the system, try a different system.”
The controversy that Chelsea needed
This is the setting in which Sarri led his team to the League Cup final on Sunday night. There are few things in football that can motivate a team as a final can. A moment of insight or good luck can bring a trophy even if you aren’t the better team. So, the dressing room got together, despite the uncertainty regarding Sarri’s future, despite the disappointment among the fans, despite the miserable form.
They put up a worthy performance, keeping a usually unstoppable City side at bay for 120 minutes. That was the first confidence boost. The second came from a moment of weakness for the Blues.
With the game heading to penalties, goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga seemed to have a hamstring issue. Ex-City keeper Willy Caballero was asked to warm up. Kepa, however, appeared to be alright and wanted to continue to for the penalty shootout - that's where goalkeepers get to shine.
It is unclear whether the substitution would have been a tactical one or one forced by injury. However, as Sarri, assistant manager Gianfranco Zola, and the referee all urged Kepa to walk off the pitch, he stood his ground and refused. The board to indicate the substitution never went up, and a furious Sarri walked out into the tunnel.
He had to be retrieved for the team huddle prior to the penalties. Kepa failed to become the savior he dreamed of becoming, as he conceded four of the five spot kicks.
In the post-match press conference, Sarri was calm:
“It was a big misunderstanding,” he said, “I understood that he had a cramp. I didn't want the goalkeeper to go into penalties in that physical condition. I realised the situation only after three, four minutes when the doctor arrived back to the bench.”
This answer seemed like a cover-up for a bigger issue within the dressing room. Had it really been an injury concern, Sarri should have had no issue with the player suggesting he was good to continue. It doesn’t explain his anger at what seemed like an act of open defiance.
Perhaps it was a tactical Tim Krul-esque substitution. A sensible one too – Caballero would have been well placed to respond to City spot kicks, having spent three years at the club.
How can a player refuse to come off? It turns out that he can if his number never goes up. When Sarri saw Kepa’s reluctance to come off, he had to option to force the substitute anyway.
This is a manager who has been struggling at his new club. He has been struggling to understand the culture of this new country. He came with his philosophy and so far, it hasn't worked. He isn’t even sure of what he is doing wrong.
After every game, there are questions about his future. In the transfer market, his board doesn’t support him. In the stadium, the fans are in doubt. On Sunday night, he lost the support of a key player.
Could he risk forcing off such a player?
It can be so, so lonely at the top. You can be the best manager the world has seen, and still be lost and alone when the pressure strikes.
The Kepa-Sarri controversy is not just about Kepa’s disobedience, but also about Sarri’s lack of confidence in his own methods, because he could be facing a huge backlash. When he goes in front of the camera, he takes with himself the enormous weight of his decisions and the liability for anything that has gone wrong.
If after that row, Sarri takes Kepa off anyway and then Chelsea proceed to lose, he is under immense fire.
The players are bigger than the managers. When the season starts rolling downhill, it’s the manager that faces the axe. For someone doubting himself, then, it can be hard to go against an important player in an important final.
Things are looking upwards
The turn of events came when Chelsea fined the Spanish goalkeeper a week’s wages and got him to issue a public apology.
“Although there was a misunderstanding, on reflection, I made a big mistake with how I handled the situation,” he wrote, “I wanted to take the time today to apologize fully and in person to the coach, to Willy, my team-mates and to the club. I have done this and now I want to offer the same apology to the fans.”
On Wednesday night, Kepa was dropped from the team facing Tottenham Hotspur in a crucial Premier League game. The team looked confident while defending, albeit lacking in bite up front. Willy Caballero kept a clean sheet and the pensioners clinched the three points courtesy a goal from Pedro and a horrendous error from Kieran Trippier.
Something was palpably different at Stamford Bridge. After the game, Sarri told the media that he expected Kepa to play in one of the following two games.
"We cannot kill him. When you are young you can make mistakes,” he said, “You need to understand very well after every mistake. For me the question is closed."
For once, it looks like Sarri is calling the shots. He has the backing of the club. The way the issue was dealt with internally and publicly indicates that despite all concerns, the manager at Chelsea holds still holds his power.
On Wednesday night, there were still many issues to be resolved, but it appears that the process of resolution has begun, by enabling the manager to take bold steps without looking over his shoulder.
An end to the dramatic saga at Chelsea, then. Is it also the beginning of a rejuvenated Chelsea? Let us see.