En av de bedre spaltene jeg har lest.
"Alyson Rudd, writing in today’s Times, perfectly encapsulates Maurizio Sarri’s dilemma at Chelsea. She writes: “He knows his job is on the line, he knows the club expect more, but he is not particularly interested in being just another Chelsea manager getting by on pragmatism and a big budget.’
And the reason he’s not interested in it is that the club doesn’t want him to be a pragmatist with a big budget. Which is what every single previous Chelsea manager — both the very good ones and the not-so-good ones — in the Roman Abramovich era have been, with the notable exception of André Villas-Boas.
The club made a conscious choice in going down this road. This is his brief, this is what he does. It’s predicated on an old Johan Cruyff quote, often repeated by Pep Guardiola: “If Plan A doesn’t work, you don’t go to Plan B. You do a better job with Plan A.”
That’s why, from his perspective, it’s silly to crucify him for not playing N’Golo Kanté in front of the back four (“Plan A simply wouldn’t work at all with a defensive midfielder in that role” he might say) or not throwing on another striker when you’re two goals down at home and facing elimination (“If I believed that playing two strikers was the most efficient way of scoring without conceding, I would have done it earlier.”)
More than most, Sarri is also conscious of a fallacy we often see managers — especially less pragmatic ones, like him — falling into. They spend pre-season developing a plan, they drill it into their players and then, when they hit a rough patch, they change it and get a positive result. They then stick to the new set up, which quickly stops working and they have to change again. Why? Because football is a low-scoring sport where individual errors, mood and sheer random luck and happenstance have an outsized effect. And one of the single most difficult things for a manager — or, indeed, any boss who supervises a group of people — is identifying this situation.
In other words, you’ve made a change and results have suddenly improved. To what degree is it down to the change and to what degree is it down to matters that have nothing to do with it?
This, in a nutshell, is why he does what he does. And, as pointed out before, other managers have faced similar criticism in terms of being called stubborn or inflexible, particularly in their first seasons in England. It’s easy to forget, but there was a time when conventional wisdom slammed Jürgen Klopp’s early Liverpool sides for supposedly being incapable of defending.
And when Pep Guardiola was branded a fraud for supposedly not practising tackles and winning second balls. Just as it’s easy to forget that Klopp took over from Brendan Rodgers with Liverpool joint eighth in the table in October and finished the campaign in eighth place. Or that Guardiola spent much of his first Premier League season in fourth place, with a side that had won the title in two of the previous five years.
The problem — well, one of them anyway — is that Sarri isn’t Guardiola or Klopp. He doesn’t have the same charisma and the same communication skills, both towards the outside world and towards his own players. (Nor does he have the same CV.) When he talked about how maybe he couldn’t motivate his players or how Eden Hazard is an individual talent who needs to fit into a system, he was being brutally honest in sharing his view. But it amounts to a big stick that the media and punditocracy can use to beat you over the head.
“What? You can’t motivate your players?!? You must be rubbish, that’s what a manager’s first job is!”
“Why are you criticising Hazard?! He’s your best player!!”
And on and on it goes. These statements of course wouldn’t matter if Chelsea were getting results (and odds are he would have provided exactly the same answers if he’d been asked during the 18-game unbeaten run early in the campaign). But when you’re struggling, they add fuel to the fire.
That part, incidentally is nothing new. Sarri had communications issues at Napoli too. As one person who knew him well from that era says: “He talks in front of the cameras in exactly the same way as if he was going for a cigarette out back with his mate. You can’t do that unless you win every game.”
And the communications issues extend to his squad management to the point that it feels like Groundhog Day. At Napoli, he employed the same basic XI all season long, changing it only when Faouzi Ghoulam went down with a season-ending injury and he was forced to play Mario Rui in his place. He also had his own version of the Mateo Kovacic/Ross Barkley substitution at the hour mark, except in Naples it was Piotr Zielinski for Marek Hamsik.
He prioritised the league and sent out virtual second XIs in the cups. It ended up costing him dear as a second string Napoli side lost away to Shakthar Donetsk and later, in the Europa League, at home to Leipzig. Two defeats that cost the club tens of millions in lost revenue and infuriated the club owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis. That they were top of Serie A as late as March and ended with one of the highest points totals in history mitigated the criticism somewhat, but it spoke volumes about Sarri and his approach.
He has justified his lack of change at Chelsea by citing — who else? — Guardiola who told him that “in your first sesaon, if you are introducing a new philosophy, you can only work with 14 players.” Otherwise, there’s confusion and you don’t build chemistry.
His critics would point out that at Napoli however he was in his third season. And, despite what Pep may have told him, no fewer than 17 different players started ten or more Premier League games for City in his first season. At Chelsea, that number might be 14 by the end of the year, but only because of the Gonzalo Higuaín-Álvaro Morata switch.
One other Sarri characteristic is his reliance for guys he has worked with before, who understand what he’s trying to do. Jorginho and Higuaín are two evident examples at Chelsea, at Napoli he had four players who were previously with him at Empoli.
Chelsea presumably did their homework and knew it was going to look like this. They knew he’d require time (taking over late didn’t help matters), they knew they couldn’t overhaul the squad for him and they knew this meant taking a gamble.
The great unknown is whether Sarri convinced them he could make it work with this group of players. Chelsea’s full backs — Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso — are the epitome of this. Both are exceptional footballers, neither is a natural fit for his style of play. The former spent the past two seasons at centre back and doesn’t have the aptitude to come inside and build play, turning himself into an extra midfielder. Neither does the latter, who also happens be one-footed and struggles defensively in a back four.
He can cite all of these factors as mitigating circumstances, along with the fact that Chelsea knew exactly what they were getting into. And if he hits his objective — for all the doom-and-gloom they are one point away from fourth place and still in the Europa League — and shows signs of growth by the end of the season, he’ll be back next year. And given that some level of overhaul is likely — given the number of players whose contracts are winding down — he might even have fewer square pegs in round holes.
But to get there he needs to offer what has been sorely lacking over the past few weeks. A sense of belief in the work he’s doing, as well as the minimum results to go with it. And because communication isn’t his strong suit, he won’t be able to bluff his way there."