Handpicked Sarri’s Football Mirrors Chelsea’s Rigidity

February 19, 2019

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It’s not certain whether Maurizio Sarri was a managerial pick made by Roman Abramovich or not, but whoever identified the Italian knew what they wanted last summer. 

Indeed, speculation over Chelsea’s pursuit of Sarri started well before the end of the 2017/18 season, and yet it was well into pre-season before the appointment was made. That eat into Sarri’s preparation time and it could be argued that this has manifested itself in the struggles of recent weeks, with Chelsea failing to adapt to the method and ways of their new manager.

Just eight months into Sarri’s Chelsea tenure and there are already questions over his future. Reports claim the Italian has just one month to avoid the sack, while others state that defeat to Manchester City in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final, following on from the 6-0 loss at the Etihad Stadium two weeks ago and the FA Cup exit to Manchester United, might be enough to convince Abramovich to pull the trigger.

Of course, the Chelsea owner has been in this sort of situation before. Abramovich has long desired an attractive, dynamic team at Stamford Bridge and has more than once sought a manager to deliver that. Villas-Boas and Scolari were both appointed to change Chelsea’s footballing identity, but neither lasted as long as a full season.

Sarri has similarly been hired to change the style of play at a club and history may well be repeating itself on how long he lasts there. But while there are certainly justifiable gripes held by many Chelsea fans over the stewardship of the former Napoli boss, he cannot be blamed for all that he is currently facing.

The 60-year-old is experiencing many of the same problems Antonio Conte came up against last season. The former Juventus and Italy manager’s frustration was apparent almost from the moment he lifted the Premier League trophy, with his exasperation focused on the club’s failure to sign him the transfer targets he wanted and needed.

As Conte saw it, the culture of mediocrity came from the top. The structure at Chelsea means that a manager only has so much say over transfers and this is what has resulted in such a disconnect between the man in the dugout and whoever guides the transfer strategy at Stamford Bridge.

Rather than strengthening the squad, Chelsea have actually diluted the quality of their squad since the Premier League title triumph of 2017. When Diego Costa left the club, Alvaro Morata arrived in his place. And when Morata left, Gonzalo Higuain was signed, but only on loan. Thibaut Courtois was replaced by Kepa Arrizabalaga. John Terry and Gary Cahill’s centre back duo was broken up for David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger’s pairing. If Christian Pulisic is, as many suspect, the replacement for Eden Hazard then the trend will continue.

The reason for this systematic siphoning off can be, and has been, debated. There is an argument made by many that Abramovich has essentially lost interest in Chelsea, putting the club up for sale following diplomatic issues with the UK government. That would explain why transfer market investment in the squad has dried up somewhat in recent seasons.

The other train of thought points out that Chelsea, much like Arsenal, have been left behind by bigger clubs with more financial clout in the transfer market. They cannot compete for the best players in Europe like they once were able to in the early stages of the Abramovich era. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, of course, has played a role in this.

It’s not just down to transfers, though. The group of players currently at Chelsea have been assembled with a conservative style of football in mind. It has been that way for a generation, so anyone coming in with progressive ideas finds themselves up against an engrained culture. To shift that, it will take time. But if there’s one thing that managers at Stamford Bridge aren’t readily afforded, it’s time.

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Author: Graham Ruthven

Graham Ruthven is a football writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow, Scotland. He was written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Eurosport, Bleacher Report, Four Four Two, The Scotsman and others. He is also a football shirt aficionado and still maintains to this day that Dennis Bergkamp didn’t mean it

Twitter @grahamruthven

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