As the final whistle was blown at Stamford Bridge on Monday night, you could finally hear the outpouring of emotion from the Chelsea supporters who’d been drowned out by the vociferous away support.
A dull chorus of boos and jeers greeted the players as they were dumped out of the FA Cup, having lost 0-2 to Manchester United. It was a game that highlighted for all to see, just how dull and ineffective Chelsea have become this season.
For all their possession and home advantage over United, Maurizio Sarri’s team completely failed to offer anything approaching a goal threat in the match. Worse still, their lack of ideas and cyclic passing triangles around the edge of the final third painted a picture that they are managed by a stubborn coach with no plan B when his lovely possession football fails to get results.
The ripple effects of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona revolution in 2008 are still being felt in the world’s most popular sport. A relentless possession-based game is nothing new. However, Pep’s Barcelona refined and mastered it and won universal praise for their style. They also gained many admirers from other coaches who watched and took note from afar, hoping to mimic Barca’s purist methods and reap similar rewards.
The key difference with Barcelona though was their ruthless, penetrating front line, which spearheaded their possession machine to victory. Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, David Villa, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to name but a few wonderfully talented forwards. All of them had their go in firing Barcelona to victory and honours in those glory days.
Without such a potent combination of players upfront though, all of that possession would have been a bit redundant, and it’s a lesson some of their would be copycats have learned.
Sarri’s style is not identical to Guardiola’s, but the emphasis on possession and keeping the ball is the same. The former Napoli boss made his name on his players religiously keeping possession and making the opposition toil. The current issue for Sarri is that he doesn’t have the forwards at Chelsea.
In their recent humiliation at Bournemouth, Chelsea enjoyed 68% possession and seven shots on target. Their opponents managed the same number despite being asphyxiated in midfield.
Against United, it was the same story, 67% of the play and just two shots at goal. With so much dominance of the ball and no goals or any real convincing passages of play to show for it, the football is dull, as the same passes are monotonously recycled around the second third of the pitch.
He is also exacerbating the situation by fielding a number of players who simply don’t score enough. A midfield three of Jorginho, Kante and Kovacic simply doesn’t have enough goals in it. He may be able to get away with it, as he was earlier in the season if one or two other payers are contributing. When that stream runs dry though, there are simply no other regular match winners in Sarri’s ranks.
Sarri could do well from doing a little light reading on recent Premier League history. Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal are both prime examples of coaches who have been ambushed by their own stubbornness.
Both had a very noble loyalty to a style of play that got their footballers with the ball at the feet and trying to pick a pass. However, when the strikers failed to fire or were absent altogether, results went west for the pair of them as they refused to adapt and find new ways to win games.
Tellingly in Rodgers’ dire final season at Liverpool, his top scorers were Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard. Both managed just 11 goals each in all completions.
Wenger’s sad final years at Arsenal were similarly dogged by ceaseless criticism of the Frenchman’s refusal to change his style of possession-based football that was okay on the eye but failing to get the required results. Sound familiar?
The likable Italian must find a way to add some teeth to his football if he is to salvage anything from the wreckage of this recent run. His early form was brilliant, but an over-reliance on Eden Hazard papered over some blatant cracks in his team’s masonry. It remains to be seen whether Gonzalo Higuain can offer enough, but he at least offers a focal point to their attack, even he is past his brilliant best.
There are options in this Chelsea side as well if the manager is willing to use them and tweak his line up to give it more dynamism and menace. The harsh reality facing the Italian though is that the players look deflated and are lacking in belief and motivation.
Sarri may well be able to turn the screw and deliver long term with his brand of football where he at another club, but he is at Cheslea F.C and they don’t do patience when things are going wrong. It could well be a case of time up at the Bridge already for Maurizio Sarri.