Sunday’s 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City saw Chelsea condemned to their worst defeat in Premier League history, coming just two weeks after their embarrassing 4-0 capitulation away to Bournemouth. These results have raised the stakes, the Blues are yet to score an away league goal in 2019 and chants of “we want Sarri out” were audible during Chelsea’s mid-week Europa League victory against Malmö.
Initially, everything had come up trumps for Sarri’s Chelsea.
After 11 Premier League games they were still undefeated, sitting second in the league on 27 points, above Liverpool and only two points behind rivals Manchester City. Sarri seemed to hold all the aces. However, fast-forward three months and six league defeats later, he now finds find the cards stacked firmly against him. Chelsea have been left in the lurch and now lie sixth in the table, 15 points off leaders Manchester City and facing the realistic prospect of another season without Champions League football.
So where did it all go so terribly wrong for Sarri and Chelsea?
The problem is multi-faceted.
Sarri is wedded to his brand of attacking football known simply as ‘Sarri-ball’, an intense, possession-based style that won his Napoli side so many plaudits and initially attracted Chelsea’s attention. It requires his sides to set up in a 4-3-3 formation with summer arrival Jorginho, who played under Sarri at Napoli, operating as a ‘regista’ at the base of midfield- charged to sit and dictate the tempo from deep. This has pushed French World Cup winner, N'Golo Kanté, into an unfamiliar offensive role on the right of Sarri’s midfield three.
Despite the promising start, Chelsea’s football since has been lacklustre at best. Sarri has proved himself dogmatic and inflexible in his refusal to shuffle the pack and bench consistent underperformers, such as Marcos Alonso and Willian. He has also frustrated fans with his seeming lack of ace up his sleeve for when other teams have disrupted Chelsea’s build-up by pressing Jorginho. This coupled, with Sarri’s refusal to regularly blood talented youngsters such as Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu has left fans feeling irate and disillusioned with the Sarri regime. Additionally, many pundits have called for Kanté to be deployed deeper, in a position he is perceived to be more accustomed- at the expense of Jorginho. In truth however, this is a slight misconception of Kanté’s game.
Sarri has never consistently played as a lone holding midfielder, having always previously operated in a dynamic midfield two with Leicester, Chelsea and France. In addition, Sarri does not feel that Kanté possesses the technical qualities to effectively perform the ‘regista’ role that is so integral to how he wants to play. Despite this criticism, Kanté is quietly still having a very good season in his new position, netting four times and providing four assists- a higher tally than many of Chelsea’s more offensively-minded midfielders.
Sarri has also played his hand poorly in his post-match press conferences and interviews. Some of his comments have suggested a degree of cognitive dissonance; repeating the same old tropes about poor “mentality” and wavering any sense of responsibility by asserting Chelsea are not playing “my football”. This type of remark has led many to call his bluff and question his credentials - Sarri never played professionally and has also never won a trophy as a manager. In isolation, these points perhaps do not surmount to a case for removing Sarri. However, coupled together with Chelsea’s alarming form this season, it has raised serious questions over whether Sarri is cut out for the top level.
However, not all the blame should lie at Sarri’s feet. Over the course of the last decade and a half, Chelsea have operated a slash-and-dash mindset with regard to their managers. Failure is not tolerated and it has not taken much in the past to force the clubs hand and cash in their chips mid-season, as was the case with Mourinho; twice (sacked in September 2007 and December 2015), Scolari (sacked in February 2009), Villas-Boas (sacked in March 2012) and Di Matteo (sacked in November 2012). Whilst this approach has brought unrivaled success in this period it has come at a cost. This illustrious managerial graveyard betrays the fact that no manager is safe in their job at Chelsea- this breeds uncertainty as managers consistently fight fires rather than plan for any sort of longevity.
Furthermore, since the removal of technical director Michael Emenalo, Chelsea have lacked the clear structure evident at other top European clubs. Sarri reports straight to Marina Granovskaia who operates as a quasi-director-at-large, securing lucrative sponsorship deals with the likes of Nike, whilst at the same time taking charge of transfer dealings and contract renewals. This murky lack of transparency at Chelsea is in contrast to the likes of Manchester City who recruited Txiki Begiristain as Director of football; having previously worked with manager Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Begiristain comes from a footballing background having played for Barcelona and Spain before moving up to boardroom level.
Sarri has stated he is prepared to follow suit and work within a similar structure. He sees himself as more of a ‘head coach’ rather than a traditional manager, stating in December “my problem is to improve my players, to solve the situation.”
This is in contrast with previous bosses such as José Mourinho and Antonio Conte who spent much of their tenures fighting for over-arching control on all footballing matters. Following the defeat to Manchester City, Sarri told Sky in Italy “If the president (Abramovich) calls, I'll be happy, seeing as I never hear from him… to be honest, I don’t know what to expect.” This statement clearly betrays sentiments that are symptoms of the points raised above. Sarri is concerned for his job and also confused as to whom he is accountable to. There is clearly a lack of communication and chain of command at the top of the club, which leads to this chronic uncertainty that breeds crisis.
When the chips are down, my opinion is that Chelsea should stick with Sarri. His style will take time to implement but the start of the season demonstrated the potential Chelsea have. Without the leaders of old, removing the manager at every wobble is not a sustainable model and a change in both mindset and structure is needed at boardroom level.