On the surface of things, there is still a season to be savaged for Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea. The top four is within their grasp and they have a more than reasonable shout to win the Europa League.
Arguments would rage about whether or not top four and a trophy would constitute a successful season. However, there is still much for Sarri to do, if the two hypothetical gauges for success are to even register in West London this season.
Their form so far in 2019 suggests a team, at best blowing hot and cold, at worst, uncomfortable, perhaps even unwilling to adapt to Sarri’s demanding style of play. With so much riding on this home straight, the Italian needs his men onside and his methods to produce results if he is to save his skin. The crucial question for Sarri now, is whether or not his players are onside and able to get over the line at the end of the season.
Much was made of the so-called Sarri-ball genius and the results it produced last summer when the former banker was unveiled as Chelsea’s latest managerial incumbent. His Napoli team had won many admirers and pushed Juventus to within just four points of the title in Italy.
His style is all about aggression out of possession and precision when on the ball. Each player in Sarri’s vision, must know exactly where to be when their colleague is on the ball. This constant movement is supposed to form passing triangles all over pitch and open up space for the forwards to exploit.
Empoli and Napoli were free-scoring under the guidance and exacting methods of Sarri. They created more chances than anyone else in Serie A last season and had a host of continental coaches nodding in approval at their extremely purist approach. There is a payoff though for Sarri’s approach and so far at Chelsea it’s been a rather expensive one.
Sarri demands dedication and execution of his vision at all times. Players are expected to almost contain themselves and favour a short passing game, in place of flair, dribbling or free roles.
This is where it can become problematic. Players like Hazard thrive in a free role, with licence to take people on and cause general chaos. He has been expected to pigeonhole himself into Sarri’s framework this season, with mixed results.
He’s not the only one either. The almost religious devotion to playing the ball whenever and wherever a player finds himself on the pitch can cause problems. The likes of Ross Barkley and N’Golo Kante don’t always appear comfortable, with the former so glaring caught out recently at City, trying to play out from an awkward angle, with his back to the action and subsequently giving a goal away.
like for like
As results have deteriorated, it has become quite clear that Sarri’s plans are easily thwarted. His talisman, Jorginho, has been easily marked out of the action and with their number six position nullified, Chelsea’s midfield has been too frequently overwhelmed.
These things can happen in football and if something is so blatantly going wrong, you would expect some correction to come from the touchline.
Instead, Sarri has often clung to his system, persisting with it even when it has obviously failed. Like for like substitutions have been met with cries of acrimony from the Stamford Bridge faithful. It’s a dangerous policy for Sarri to adopt, and not just because of the heat from the terraces.
Like for like substitutes hint at an understated arrogance from the manager. A refusal to shift his shape and switch players to yield more attacking gains, hints at a man who believes the issue lies not with his plan or method, but in the players executing his orders on the pitch.
You have to question whether this outlook from the manager is affecting the morale of the players and at such a crucial juncture in the season, Chelsea could do without their playing staff being short on confidence and morale.
As we enter the business end of the season, Chelsea still have their destiny in their own hands. There are signs at least that Sarri is turning the screw and pointing the team in the right direction. He is in the last eight of the Europa League and in Gonzalo Higuain, they have at last signed someone who can lead their previously blunted lines and add some direction to their play.
However, there is much still to fix. The recent re-emergence of the Hazard to Real Madrid rumours will do little to boost confidence around Stamford Bridge as we enter the final stretch.
They must find a way around their pockmarked recent form and grind out wins if they are to rescue things from this roller coaster campaign.
Too frequently have they been easily sussed out and at times the body language of the players has been tellingly poor.
Given time, Sarri’s methods could pay dividends for Chelsea. However, with so much at stake, you have to question whether players, who are still adapting and struggling to get to grips with his style, will be able to steer him away from the Stamford Bridge exit door at the end of the season if he ultimately fails to deliver.