With Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea must consider doing the unthinkable: not sacking their manager

Adam Hurrey
The Telegraph

His phone will not be the first over the last 15 years to flash up with several increasingly urgent messages from “Roman Abramovich (work mobile)”. One wonders what sort of language is used in those stern missiles of feedback - any of the last eleven Chelsea managers since the first iPhone was released might be able to enlighten us - but, in any case, Maurizio Sarri appears to be heading down a well-trodden path.

There is an established school of thought that instability is simply Chelsea's thing, substantially backed up by 16 cup finals in as many years, to go with the 15 pieces of major silverware. It was unlikely to have been Abramovich’s vision as his helicopter flew over London on his club-hunting mission back in 2003, but he has overseen one of the most fruitful exercises in short-termism that football has ever seen.

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But, by 2019, something rather unexpected has befallen Chelsea: quite simply, their rivals have all bucked their ideas up. Manchester City have taken idea bucking-up to a whole new level; Jurgen Klopp has magically, furiously and gleefully bucked Liverpool’s ideas up; Mauricio Pochettino is due to complete the bucking-up of Tottenham’s ideas any month now; and the idea-based up-buckage at Old Trafford has gathered instant momentum under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

If Chelsea’s plan relied on one or two other title-contenders gently imploding at convenient moments, they could be waiting a few years for their next opportunity.

“It's the type of club where you wouldn't be surprised if you wake up tomorrow to the news that Chelsea have changed their manager”, Gary Neville sighed after their 6-0 annihilation at the hands of City on Sunday - but, by now, we all know the storyline that unfolds from there. Among the dozen managerial upheavals at Stamford Bridge under Abramovich, the unceremonious bootings-out of the despairing Luiz Felipe Scolari (seven months, 36 games) and the painfully earnest Andre Villas-Boas (eight months, 40 games) most resemble Sarri’s current state of affairs. Both were brought in to provide a fresh breath of footballing air, and both were swiftly burped out before any kind of footballing philosophy could ever have taken hold.

 

<span>Sarri finds himself staring into the all-too-familiar Chelsea managerial abyss</span> <span>Credit: GETTY IMAGES </span>
Sarri finds himself staring into the all-too-familiar Chelsea managerial abyss Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“If the ownership at the club really want to see a better level of football they need to live through the pain,” Neville continued. “Now is not the time to go weak on that.”

We have heard the “give him time” tune many times before, at many other clubs. But Chelsea have reached the point, after a decade of managerial churn, where they may have no other rational choice. The case for keeping faith with Sarri starts with the manager himself: he was hired purely on the basis of his footballing style taking hold at Napoli (an inherently dangerous recruitment strategy akin to trying to relocate the Parthenon, slab by slab, to your back garden) and the early signs were quietly promising.

Not that quiet, in fact: Sarri’s 18-game unbeaten honeymoon period included a thrillingly caution-to-the-wind win over Arsenal, a Carabao Cup defeat of Liverpool at Anfield and, three days later, being denied another victory over Klopp only by a stunning 89th-minute Daniel Sturridge intervention at Stamford Bridge.

Once Sarri’s foundations had finally been excavated - Spurs giving his side a comprehensive lesson in aggressive cohesion at Wembley in late November - the wheels have supposedly come off. But should seven defeats in 11 weeks (even allowing for the startling scorelines at Bournemouth and on Sunday at the Etihad) erase the obvious positives of an unbeaten three-and-a-half-month start?

Indeed, it was a start that followed an almost non-existent pre-season thanks to the protracted negotiations with Napoli, which meant Sarri was appointed only a day before the final of a World Cup in which a sizeable chunk of his squad were involved until the latter stages. Few managers would consider that an ideal set of circumstances to introduce an entirely new gameplan.

On a wider level, Chelsea have hired-and-fired themselves into something of a corner: there are only so many managers out there. If they hit the reset button immediately, there will surely be no third coming of Chief Caretaker Guus Hiddink, leaving just the pleasant smile of Gianfranco Zola to steer the squad to the peace and quiet of May.

After that, which Continental flavour of the month would be attracted to the idea of picking up where Sarri’s shipped-in philosophy left off, with the prospect of a transfer ban hanging over them, and with Eden Hazard’s patience having finally run out? Perhaps poor little Jorginho - who, admirably, was still trying to point his teammates in the right direction at 4-0 down on Sunday - will be included in any Sarri severance package, at least sparing his successor one more dilemma.

At the Etihad, it was too easy to interpret Sarri’s furious cigarette-chewing and notepad-scrabbling as the signs of a dead man walking. In his press conference, though, he once again remained calm while talk of odds-slashing and tools-downing swirled around him. Once again, Sarri said, the players were not playing his football, even if this time he felt obliged to acknowledge the precariousness of his position.

But six months is simply not enough for those ideas - however rigid they are - to fully sink in. Sarri’s intransigence over his 4-3-3 may need to soften, but it is hardly a worse trait than dithering, tinkering and ultimately confusing a squad still learning a new way.

As a 17th cup final since 2003 awaits them, perhaps the best short-term option for Chelsea, after all, is to do nothing. What more harm can it really do?

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