FootballLeague Cup

Not backing Maurizio Sarri fully has led to his and Chelsea’s downfall this season

February 22, 2019

IN 1989-90, Liverpool beat Crystal Palace 9-0 and then lost 4-3 to them in the FA Cup semi-final. Teams have come back from humblings before. But as Chelsea approach Sunday’s League Cup final, they do so weighed down by the knowledge that last time they played Manchester City they were hammered 6-0. At least Palace had seven months to work out a way to beat Liverpool and in that time switched to a back three; Chelsea have had two weeks.

That said, there’s nothing to suggest Maurizio Sarri would change approach whether you give him two weeks, seven months or 27 years. He has his template and he sticks to it, come what may. That’s why Pedro has replaced or been replaced by Willian 14 times this season, why Mateo Kovacic has replaced or been replaced by Ross Barkley 20 times.

He plays a possession-based 4-3-3 and when things go wrong, his solution is to play a possession-based 4-3-3 but better.

But that’s Sarri. That he is stubborn and intransigent is manifestly true, but it also shouldn’t come as a surprise. Chelsea knew that when they appointed him – or, at least, they should have done. The problem then was the squad the board gave him, one that required an almost complete overhaul if it was to be fit for purpose as a Sarriball unit.

What they did was to give him Jorginho.

Jorginho has been widely criticised this season and it is true that since Dele Alli obliterated him in November, he has looked a shadow of the player he was. But he has not been helped by the make-up of the rest of the team. Playing Jorginho as a regista – and it’s not a role familiar in English football – was always going to cause problems because it meant N’Golo Kante moving out of the role in which he excels. Kante is not a natural in a box-to-box role but has performed moderately well, having his record goal-scoring season. It’s reasonable to argue that asking a player who was probably the best in the league in his position to adapt is unwise but it’s also not inconceivable that Kante could fulfil the role for Chelsea that Allan did for Napoli under Sarri.

But the major difference is the third member of the midfield trio.

Where Napoli had Marek Hamsik, who scored 100 league goals for

the club at a rate of roughly one every four games, Chelsea have Mateo Kovacic, who hasn’t scored for more than two years. The result is that Chelsea have a midfield that doesn’t provide goals, making them extremely reliant on Eden Hazard for inspiration. He did provide it for a spell in the autumn, but nobody can sustain that level for ever.

That is also part of the issue with Jorginho. Opponents can depute a player effectively to take him out of the game as a creative force and, ideally, capitalise on his defensive shortcomings at the same time. That is much harder to do when there are sources of creativity elsewhere in the team.

That is the core problem but it’s not the only one. Is Marcos Alonso better as a wing-back or a full-back? Is Cesar Azpilicueta better as a right-back or a right-sided central defender? Is David Luiz better as part of a back four or a back three? There are positional questions everywhere, players who don’t fit Sarri’s template.

The contrast with City is clear. When they wanted Pep Guardiola they prepared everything for him. They gave him a CEO and a director of football who understood what he wanted to and who had worked with him before. They bought players to his specification. By contrast, when Sarri turned up, Chelsea hadn’t even got formally rid of his predecessor. To give him Jorginho, and then six months later Gonzalo Higuain, is not enough. If they wanted Sarri they had to commit fully to Sarriball and they have not.

When Sarri, asked about the failure of Sarriball and about the Chelsea crowd deriding it, says sadly that this is not Sarriball, he is right.

But it’s irrelevant. His opportunity in English football feels as though it is coming to an end. The board and the chaotic recruitment are largely responsible, but he is not without blame: it helps nobody to send out the same ill-fitting players in the same shape each week to make the same mistakes.

And so Chelsea come to a League Cup final, remembering their win over City in December but fearing a beating as bad as that they endured a fortnight ago. Their only hope is to do what they did at Stamford Bridge in inflicting City’s first defeat of the season, to sit deep, to draw City forward and hit them on the break. But that, as Sarri admitted, was never the plan; it was just the way the game went – and before it went that way, City could have established the sort of early lead they subsequently did at the Etihad.

Compromise seems the only way forward, but Sarri is not a man for that.

A £10 bet on Chelsea to win the League Cup returns £33.00