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Maurizio Sarri’s Job is Safe but Ball-Hogging Tedium at Chelsea Cannot Go on

Maurizio Sarri’s Job is Safe but Ball-Hogging Tedium at Chelsea Cannot Go on

Tuesday, 5 February, 2019 - 07:45
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri during the match against Bournemouth. (Reuters)
London - Dominic Fifield
The clamor around Chelsea is for change albeit, within the club at least, that does not extend to tinkering with the management.

There are no first-team delegations primed with complaints and queuing up outside Marina Granovskaia’s office just yet. While it is never wise to pre-suppose Roman Abramovich’s mood, the hierarchy are less inclined these days to fire a manager who has barely had time to reinstate ketchup on the menu at the training ground canteen.

Yet the sense is inescapable that Maurizio Sarri cannot simply plough on like this. There has to be an acknowledgment that something has to be done differently, primarily in terms of the side’s tactical approach. Chelsea and Abramovich knew they were hiring a manager whose faith in his philosophy was unswerving, born of a rise through Italian amateur football into Serie A with Empoli and Napoli, but a manager of any clout has to be able to adapt to a certain extent.

There is an art to improvisation. It cannot simply be a case of blindly repeating the same approach, and then, when the same problems duly flare up, issuing the same exclamations of astonishment in public.

The 4-0 thrashing at Bournemouth last week was, on the one hand, a shock to the system given Chelsea have not endured a dismissal so emphatic in the top flight since 1996. But, on the other hand, it was all so eminently predictable. Eddie Howe heaped praise post‑match on the efforts of David Brooks and Josh King in shutting down Jorginho, through whom Sarri’s team set their rhythm, but any opponents worth their salt have been doing that against Chelsea since Tottenham stifled the Italy midfielder at source in late autumn. Perceived lesser sides, those on whom the onus is not to pass their elite opponents off the pitch, have settled better into implementing the feverish industry which tends to close Chelsea down. They can be opened up too, at pace.

Sarri’s side still hog the ball. They had 68% of the possession against Bournemouth but there is little guile to any of it, their play a constant recycling of side to side or backwards touches. It can be tedious possession for possession’s sake. The excitement at the Vitality Stadium was all born of Bournemouth’s rapid counterattacks, slicing through a team hypnotized by their monopoly of the ball. They crave an alternative option, one that might shrug them out of their metronomic plod. But Sarri, aside from switching between target man and false No 9, will only countenance tweaking his formation, akin to shaking things up, once he feels his players are completely au fait with plan A.

“We haven’t even learned the most basic moves yet,” he offered to an Italian broadcaster on Wednesday when the question of Sarri‑ball cropped up. “We need to work on the basics, the primary foundations of my football. Only then will we try to change a few things. We had assumed we had learned a certain style of football but the truth is we never did learn it and are paying the consequences.”

That echoed his comments before the defeat at Arsenal in their previous Premier League fixture. “We are not ready to change at the moment,” he had said. “I can change when we are at 100% in what I want to see. If in 4-3-3 we are at the top, like in Naples last season, we can also play in a 4-2-3-1. But not at the moment.”

Sarri is desperate to have time on the training pitches, where he can monotonously drum home his principles in the hope they become second nature. He had endured relatively slow starts with Empoli and Napoli but the players eventually cottoned on. Yet the relentless nature of the schedule in the Premier League is denying him that same opportunity now. He must already be pining for a proper pre-season though, first, he has to reach the summer with his position intact.

The board knew what they were appointing and it is not in the regime’s nature to seek to force the manager to play a different way. But they will surely expect to see signs of an ability to adapt from the stubborn outlook, even if that threatens to push Sarri away from his underlying principles en route. They will seek evidence that the team’s approach does not always have to revolve entirely around Jorginho, Sarri’s crutch but a player who was always likely to need time to adapt to life in a far more frenetic division.

Chelsea need to inject pace, or natural width, or even raw aggression (Diego Costa’s snarl has never been more missed). Something, anything, to give opponents an unanticipated problem because, at present, everyone knows what they are going to confront when they play Chelsea. It is all too predictable.

Even the reaction to failure is starting to feel tired. Sarri has questioned his players’ motivation and even reverted to Italian to add more punch to his message after the defeat at the Emirates Stadium. At Bournemouth he cast his coaching staff from the dressing room post‑match and spent an hour with his players attempting to pinpoint why this team’s performance can unravel so rapidly from a position of relative comfort.

César Azpilicueta claimed they had “spoken as men” through an honest post-mortem, though the suggestion is most of the talking came from Sarri with the squad in hushed silence for long periods. There were further talks as a group before practice back at the training ground on Thursday.

The team ultimately bounced back at Huddersfield on Saturday with an emphatic 5-0 victory and new signing Gonzalo Higuain netting twice.

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