Stubborn Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri sends warning to board: Back me or the players

james olley
Evening Standard

There is only ever one winner when a Chelsea manager takes on his own dressing room. Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas are just three men who can testify to that.

By publicly chastising his players and doggedly sticking to his style of play, Maurizio Sarri is asking an extremely difficult question of the club’s senior boardroom figures: back me or them.

This is a club which has proved adept during the Roman Abramovich era at winning trophies despite a prolific turnover of managers. It is a squad that know how to win, one that is capable of bending almost any game to their will when motivated and focused.

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It is also one which is capable of throwing in the towel with the kind of insipid performance that costs a manager his job. And there have been too many this season to avoid the searching examination Sarri now faces of both his methodology and the likelihood of succeeding at Stamford Bridge.

Manchester City are a formidable team under Pep Guardiola and may well end the season by retaining their Premier League title. But Chelsea were utterly complicit in their own downfall as Sergio Aguero struck yet another hat-trick — his 11th in the League, equalling Alan Shearer’s record — Raheem Sterling netted a brace and Ilkay Gundogan weighed in to condemn the visitors to their biggest defeat since April 1991.

City overwhelmed Chelsea but, more significantly, it fits the alarming pattern of folding cheaply in big games away from home. As ever, the Italian defended ‘Sarri-ball’, but it was either arrogant or naive to believe an uncompromised approach still in its early stages and bereft of any obvious changes would be sufficient to repel City here.

Just as Arsenal found to their cost a week earlier — and many sides before them in fairness — Chelsea were overrun in wide areas. Full-backs Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso lost possession 12 times each — more than any other Chelsea player — a sign they were scrambled mentally by City’s movement, unsure without the ball who to mark and when. This was another occasion when the decision to deploy Jorginho at the base of a midfield three instead of N’Golo Kante looked misguided while Eden Hazard had just 57 touches — fewer than eight City players.

Tactics are one thing but attitude is another. Sarri did not accuse his players of a lack of motivation this time, but he has done so in the past and there was plenty of evidence on Sunday to suggest the issue still remains.

“Something has changed, at the moment I am not able to see the reason, but I have to work for this,” Sarri said. “My target is to play my football, it is not to change to another football. At the moment, we are playing another [type of] football.”

How long he will be given to identify the problem remains to be seen. He hardly helped himself during a post-match interview with Sky Italia in which he said: “If the president [Abramovich] calls, I’ll be happy, seeing as I never hear from him. To be honest, I don’t really know what to expect.”

It will only end one way if Chelsea continue to produce performances like this. One moment midway through the second half seemed to act as a metaphor for the disconnect. Both teams were waiting for a break in play to make a substitution. Guardiola had his arm around Gabriel Jesus, giving the young Brazilian encouragement and direction, pointing at areas of the pitch to exploit — which, by this point, was pretty much all of them.

In the adjacent technical area, Ruben Loftus-Cheek stood on his own with Sarri several yards away. Not a word was uttered between the pair.

Drubbing: City celebrate after hitting Chelsea for six (AFP/Getty Images)
Drubbing: City celebrate after hitting Chelsea for six (AFP/Getty Images)

Each manager has their own style, of course, and the lopsided scoreline — 5-0 as it was then — clearly contributed to the contrasting energy in the respective dugouts.

Yet the body language felt symbolic of a deeper malaise and an example of the gulf between the two sides. Guardiola had a better track record than Sarri at the same stage but regardless he is an example to Chelsea of how a manager can overcome initial teething problems in his first season to radically alter a team’s playing style if given the time and financial backing.

“I know what he wants to do, I think this kind of person, these type of games always help to make our football better,” said Guardiola. “They beat us at Stamford Bridge and against Napoli last season it was tight, they were better at moments.

“People don’t understand how difficult the first year can be. My first season here was difficult. In my first year, we could not play in the way I wanted.

“People think if you buy players, you can immediately come in and win, but you need time. It just depends on the belief of the owners — if the people really believe in that.”

We’re about to find out in the coming days and weeks. They may choose to persevere, but surely only if Sarri can keep the players with him.

Even in relatively difficult and demanding moments, Guardiola never lost them at City. History tells you things are often different at Chelsea and Sarri faces a huge fight to avoid joining the list of managers undone by player power.

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