We see them as we want to see them: in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. When John Hughes’ “Breakfast Club” came out in 1985, Gonzalo Higuain wasn’t yet born and Maurizio Sarri, freshly graduated from college, was coming to terms with the fact that his life would be in banking, not football.
Like the characters in the film, there is very little they have in common. Sarri’s dad operated a crane amid the blast furnaces of a now-defunct ironworks on the banks of the Gulf of Naples. Higuain’s father was a hard-nosed defender who played for both Boca Juniors and River Plate; he ended up marrying an artist.
Sarri’s playing career was cut short by injury when he was a teenager, though by his own admission, it may have been a blessing because he likely would never have made it as a pro. His coaching career began at the lowest rung imaginable: beneath that, it’s guys putting down hoodies for goalposts in dog parks.
Higuain was fawned over from a very young age as a “can’t miss” prospect, with scouts salivating over the purity of his technique and his natural understanding of the game, the sort of stuff you can’t learn but is bestowed upon you by a higher power. He has played for six clubs and all but one of them have won the Champions League (or, in the case of River Plate, the Copa Libertadores).
But like the five teens in Vice Principal Vernon’s Saturday detention, their fates are interlinked. They will either rise together or fall as individuals. And like them, there is so much we don’t fully understand about them. Some of it is their fault, some of it isn’t.
The stakes are obvious. To Chelsea, Higuain is the short-term fix that gives them both an alibi vis-à-vis Sarri — “Here’s your guy, now make it work” — and the consistent goal scorer they haven’t had since Antonio Conte sent Diego Costa an ill-fated text message 18 months ago.
To Sarri, he’s the guy for whom he’s laying his future on the line. First, in the summer, when Chelsea were terrified by his enormous wages: he was due to make north of £45 million over the next three years, which, for a 30-something not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, is a bundle. Then, this winter, when it was obvious that Alvaro Morata’s funk was the permanent kind.
It’s a loan, so Chelsea are only on the hook for six months’ wages plus the loan fee. It’s still going to cost them some £16m, which on a per-game basis likely won’t be much less than seven figures per start. But with Manchester United and Arsenal in Chelsea’s rear-view mirror — the kind that reads “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” — and after missing out on the Champions League in two of the previous three seasons, this is a case of “speculate to accumulate.”
To Higuain, Chelsea are his escape hatch, a way out from what had become (in his mind) a wheel-spinning nightmare on skid row at Milan. That was a rebuilding project: a gig for artisans, not artists. Sure, he could have been patient and waited it out. But he turned 31 in December; his clock is ticking too.
Higuain was patient in Madrid, spending six and a half years, most of them in Ronaldo’s shadow or sharing time with Karim Benzema. No more. At some point, you have to put yourself first. He did that in Naples and broke the Serie A single-season scoring record. When he leveraged that into a move to Juventus — more money, bigger stage, better team, another shot at the Champions League — Napoli fans called him Judas and burned his jersey.
They didn’t get it. He’d served his time, made history for them and now it was back to the biggest stage — at least that’s how he saw it. And that’s why they laughed when Juventus picked up Ronaldo (him again!) last summer, basically forcing Higuain to pack his bags. It looked like a karmic reminder that no matter how big you think you are, there’s always someone bigger than you. Or was it sheer bad luck? He’d lean towards the latter.
Were Juve fans sad to see him go? Were they heck. Not because they didn’t appreciate the 55 goals he scored over two seasons. They had another star in Ronaldo to idolize. Maybe that’s why, when Milan faced Juve earlier this year, Higuain got angry. Having missed a penalty in the first half, he was sent off for dissent and had to be dragged off the pitch by teammates, shoving Ronaldo for good measure along the way.
That’s the bundle-of-nerves version of Higuain, the one whose misses cost Argentina two Copa Americas and a World Cup; the one who, while at Napoli under Rafa Benitez, missed four penalties but refused to give up spot-kick duties; the one who alternates between tightly wound fear of failure and sulky insouciance. Why? In the words of one former manager, “I don’t think he loves himself enough.”
(And then there’s the alleged “potbelly” issue. Sick of the unflattering pictures, he posted this to his Instagram only to be mocked by commenters who were convinced that it was Photoshopped.)
Yet you can’t argue with what you see. Watch him strike a ball as cleanly as anyone who has played the game. Watch him time his runs with eerie bat-sonar efficiency. Watch him sniff out space and chances as if he knows ahead of time how a play will unfold.
There’s a reason he’s the only player in history to have scored more than 100 league goals in both La Liga and Serie A. That obsessiveness, that pressure he puts on himself is the double-edged sword with which he has gone into battle for the past 13 years.
Sarri, of course, is equally obsessive. And maybe he sees the double-edged nature of his own obsession. His critics blame him for his lack of pragmatism, for not adjusting when results aren’t forthcoming. Pep Guardiola might suggest Sarri would have a kindred spirit in Johan Cruyff. “He didn’t move on to Plan B, he simply improved Plan A,” he said admiringly in this interview with Jorge Valdano.
It’s an idealistic view of football and Guardiola himself, in his first season in England, was criticised for it. Beliefs and philosophies are great, the thinking goes, but there’s that whole idea of “insanity and genius being the same thing” or “failure to adapt is a sign of weakness, not bravery or integrity.”
Sarri doesn’t see it that way. If he believes in a system and a set of personnel, and that it will bring success over time, why change it to something else, something he does not believe in?
His background probably comes into play. This is a man with a degree in economics and a specialisation in statistics and probability. If you think you have the right model to trade stocks, you don’t ditch it the moment there’s a downturn in the market. You stick it out, even over a period of losses. That’s his worldview. After all, football is a low-scoring game. When you suffer a setback, it’s not always easy to determine whether it’s a poor system, poor execution or sheer dumb luck. He can’t do anything about the luck, he believes in the system, so when he gets a bloody nose, he works on the execution. To him, it’s far more rational than constant tweaking and tinkering.
That’s how Sarri operates. It’s very black and white, which is why those who saw shades of the dying days of the Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho regimes in his criticism of the team following the Emirates debacle or his declaration that Eden Hazard was “a great player, but more of an individual than leader” are barking up the wrong tree. Sarri is neither a manipulator nor a “press conference manager” — for better or worse, he talks in front of the mic the way he would talk to his assistant coach during a cigarette break. The players know this.
Which brings us back to Higuain. Sarri sees him as the finisher Chelsea lack. He knows the system and the movements. They got on swimmingly in their 10 months together in Naples, making a reunion entirely rational. Meanwhile, Chelsea step back and watch. This is not a move they necessarily wanted — the hope in the summer was that Morata would regain his mojo — but it’s one they felt was necessary, and once they managed to negotiate the loan deal, the risk-reward ratio made sense as well.
Sarri and Higuain are something of an odd couple. Neither is easy. But they lack neither the motivation nor the tools to succeed. It may not be perfect. But in for a penny, in for a pound.