There is no betrayal between strangers. Perhaps that is what Chelsea fans will tell themselves if, as looks likely, Maurizio Sarri loses his job at the club of which he only took charge in July. As the team meekly took their leave of the FA Cup, convincingly beaten at home by a recently reinvigorated Manchester United, the air was filled with calls for the manager’s head. The jeers started in the away end, before the Chelsea supporters themselves started chanting, “You’re getting
sacked in the morning” to the coach they had never really got to know. Now, with upcoming fixtures including a cup final against a Manchester City side who recently beat them 6-0 and a London derby against upwardly-mobile Tottenham, there is no sign that things will improve for the beleaguered Italian manager.
It all started happily. It usually does. Sarri won his first five league games in charge, adjusting Chelsea’s tactical set-up to fit his own attacking brand, known across the continent as ‘Sarri-ball.’ The fans took to the chain-smoking former banker, while the players seemed to prefer him to his combustible predecessor, Antonio Conte.
Impressive wins followed, not least an assured victory against Manchester City in December, and as recently as a fortnight ago Chelsea sat comfortably in fourth place. Two games later, in sixth and out of a cup competition, the picture is bleaker. Those two places are the difference between a solid season and a poor one, and it does not help that the fans are no longer on Sarris’s side. Perhaps he should have expected this outcome, working under the most notoriously trigger-happy owner in the country, Roman Abramovich.
Since the first departure of José Mourinho in September 2007, there have been eleven managers at Chelsea. If Sarri fails to see out the season, he would become the eighth of those to last under a year, another victim of the owner’s perennial impatience.
Indeed, there seems to be an oil-flecked Damoclean sword hanging permanently over the manager’s office at Stamford Bridge. When it fell on popular figures like Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Di Matteo, the fans bemoaned Abramovich as a
fickle tyrant. Such a reaction seems unlikely now if the owner cuts ties with Sarri. When a manager is sacked, it is not merely about how often they are defeated, but also how they confront these setbacks. While Sarri brought with him a defined tactical system, his refusal to deviate from this structure, when it has clearly failed the club at key points this season, has made him look arrogant and inflexible. The most successful coaches are able to adapt to circumstances, to bring the best out of the players in their squad, and Sarri has not done this.
Jorginho, his marquee signing, has eye-catching pass completion statistics but negligible impact onmatches. Another signing, Mateo Kovacic, has not scored a league goal in over two years. Chelsea possess the most talented holding midfielder in the world in N’Golo Kante, and yet Sarri has insisted on playing him out of position on the right of a midfield
trio. It is one of football’s great inanities to say that a manager has ‘lost the dressing room,’ but Sarri’s bond with his players really appears to have evaporated. The club’s star, Eden Hazard, has been constantly linked with a move to Real Madrid, and Sarri is putting up very little fight to keep him. Young attacking prospect Callum Hudson-Odoi has been underused, and it felt like a symbolic, regime-defining moment when, losing by two goals against Manchester United, Sarri elected to substitute on defender Davide Zappacosta, leaving Hudson-Odoi on the bench.
It has been a short reign, marked by Sarri’s stubbornness and misplaced conservatism, and, barring a surprise cup final win against Manchester City, it is set to end prematurely, not with a bang but with a whimper.
Image: Илья Хохлов via Wikimedia Commons