LONDON — If the first rule of football management is that you should never criticise your players in public, Maurizio Sarri broke it in spectacular style by condemning his Chelsea team after Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal.
This was the day when Sarri took a leaf out of Jose Mourinho’s book by pointing the finger of blame at those on the pitch rather than the tactics they had been told to employ, and only time will tell whether it was a bold move or the first sign of his inability to succeed as manager at Stamford Bridge.
It was a game when Chelsea could only muster one shot on target and was perhaps the day when all of the flaws that have been exposed recently finally combined to cost the team against a direct rival for Champions League qualification.
But while many of the faults seem to lie at Sarri’s door, his frustrations boiled over after defeat at the Emirates Stadium with a postmatch dismantling of players he suggested are unable to motivate themselves for encounters with top-six rivals.
“It seems we really struggle to get ourselves up for these games,” said Sarri, who spoke in Italian at times through an interpreter. “I’m really angry about the approach that we adopted today. You can find yourself in difficulties from time to time, but we need to react to those difficulties a lot better than we did today. It was the same in our game against Tottenham [lost 3-1]. We thought we’d overcome that problem. I don’t mind losing, but I don’t like losing in this manner.”
But while his outburst might deflect attention, the fact is that his approach is not working, and doubts over his credentials at the highest level are increasing. The romantic notion of the Italian bringing ‘Sarri-Ball’ to the Premier League from Napoli has been jolted by a dose of realism in terms of negative results and underperforming players.
The 60-year-old is in his 19th job as a head coach and has yet to win a major trophy, so he certainly did not fit the usual profile of a Chelsea manager appointed under the Roman Abramovich regime. However, Sarri’s philosophy was the clincher for Chelsea’s Russian owner, and he was hired to bring flair, goals and eye-catching football.
An 18-game unbeaten start to the season in all competitions hinted at that Utopian vision becoming a reality, but Saturday’s defeat was their fifth in the past 16 games, and the manner in which it came suggested the wheels are starting to loosen on the Sarri bandwagon.
In fairness to him, his preferred high-intensity, possession-based game has been almost impossible to impose on this Chelsea squad due to the absence of players capable of making his 4-3-3 system work. The squad Sarri inherited from Antonio Conte had too many ageing players, as well as full-backs who are not quick enough and a lack of combative midfielders.
A top coach, though, can solve problems that come his way and the very best are prepared to look for alternative solutions. Sarri, however, is so stubbornly wedded to his trusted approach that he is in danger of costing Chelsea Champions League qualification.
After half a season, we know that he will stick to his formation, that substitutions will not change the alignment and that Jorginho will play whenever he is fit. Perhaps most damaging of all, we know that he is prepared to deploy Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante — his two world-class players — out of position, rather than try a different tactical approach.
Jorginho, who rejected a move to Manchester City in order to follow his manager from Napoli to Chelsea, is beginning to embody Sarri’s intransigence. The Italy international is supposed to be the creative hub of the team, but plays everything safe and is too slow to dictate in the Premier League.
Moreover, his position in the team has forced Kante to play on the right side of the midfield three, from where the French international simply cannot make the same impact as he would in front of the defence. In this game, Chelsea had 64 percent of the possession — a statistic largely down to Jorginho — but barely did anything with it.
Sarri’s loyalty to Jorginho has led to him dislodging Kante from his best position, with Cesc Fabregas sold to Monaco because of his lack of opportunities. Fabregas is no quicker than Jorginho, but is a more attack-minded midfielder and likelier to make a difference in the final third.
Then there is Hazard, who is a victim of Chelsea’s failure to sign a reliable centre-forward over the past 18 months. With Sarri reluctant to trust Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata, the latter of whom is destined for a loan move to Atletico Madrid this month, Hazard has been selected as a false nine and the Belgian international clearly does not enjoy the role.
Against Arsenal, he was on the periphery of the game, so can only hope that the imminent arrival of Gonzalo Higuain from Milan will allow him to return to his favoured position on the left, from where he has shown he can destroy teams.
If Sarri had been prepared to play 4-2-3-1, he could have Kante alongside Jorginho, with Hazard wide and Giroud or Morata leading the line. Instead, he has not given any indication of being willing to try something different. As such, opposition coaches know how to easy it is to nullify this Chelsea team.
That is down to the manager. His predecessors, such as Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, would have devised a way to make best use of their resources, but Sarri is inflexible to the extent that Chelsea are just three points clear of fifth-placed Arsenal and Manchester United in sixth.
The grip on a Champions League spot is slipping; for that to change, Sarri must find a solution to the increasing number of problems that his stubbornness has created.