LONDON — Maurizio Sarri was laughing as he left the Wembley press room after Chelsea’s Carabao Cup final defeat against Manchester City. All’s well that ends well, by all accounts, despite the Italian being incandescent with rage just an hour earlier after seeing goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refuse to leave the pitch for a late substitution in favour of understudy Willy Caballero.
At that point, Sarri had stormed down the tunnel, seemingly heading for the first taxi out of Wembley. Moments earlier, he had beckoned Kepa toward him — assistant manager Gianfranco Zola tried similar — but the 24-year-old Spaniard, who had twice received treatment from the Chelsea physio, declined to leave the pitch.
David Luiz was the only player who appeared to suggest that Kepa should do as he was told, but the change was not made. Caballero, the former City goalkeeper who saved three penalties during a shootout victory vs. Liverpool in this final three years ago, then had a little moment of his own, heading halfway down the tunnel in some kind of half-protest at being denied the chance to be a hero again.
Chelsea’s subsequent defeat on penalties — Kepa saved from Leroy Sane, but allowed a soft Sergio Aguero effort to squirm through his hands — completed a strange end to a bizarre afternoon for Sarri, who had gone into the game with his future in doubt after Chelsea’s alarming recent loss of form and reports of players losing faith.
The irony is that, for 118 minutes, it was a good day for the former Napoli coach, who was seeking the first trophy of his managerial career.
Against opponents that had destroyed Chelsea 6-0 in a Premier League game just two weeks ago, his initial game plan worked and his substitutions, for once, made Chelsea better. Even Jorginho, the much-maligned central midfielder in whom so much of Sarri’s trust is placed, was justifying his manager’s faith with an impressive performance.
But then the wheels came off spectacularly, with a show of petulance from the £71 million summer signing that has led to all manner of questions about Sarri’s future at Stamford Bridge. Kepa’s reaction was that of a teenager being told to turn off his bedroom light, and the incident developed into one of those father-son moments in which nobody is prepared to back down.
That the player ultimately stayed on the pitch, though, made Sarri look weak and out of control. Sir Alex Ferguson was always quick to insist that control was the important thing for any manager to have.
“If the coach has no control, he will not last,” the former Manchester United manager once said. “You can’t ever lose control; not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires. If anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead.”
Sarri has no control at Chelsea — Kepa’s act of defiance proved that — and the manager then made things worse for himself by absolving blame after the game.
“It was a big misunderstanding,” Sarri said. “I understood [Kepa] had cramp, so I didn’t want the goalkeeper to go to the penalties in that physical condition. I only realised the situation after three or four minutes when the doctor arrived on the bench.
“Kepa was right, but in the wrong way. Wrong in the way he conducted himself, but mentally, he was right because he was able to go to the penalties.”
The hole in the story is that Sarri could have gone to the touchline and asked the player himself; a thumbs up or down would have resolved the situation. Instead, the world witnessed a display of defiance that suggested Kepa had no fear of the consequences for defying his manager.
Perhaps this was inevitable at a club like Chelsea, where the real boss has been owner Roman Abramovich since he bought the club in 2003, meaning no manager has been able to develop the control that Ferguson insisted was crucial.
For his part, Kepa also followed the line that the incident came about because of a misunderstanding, before acknowledging that it was hardly an edifying look for all concerned.
“In no moment was it my intention to disobey, or anything like that, with the boss,” he said. “Just that it was misunderstood, because I had been attended to by the medics twice, and he thought that I wasn’t in condition to continue. It was two or three minutes of confusion until the medics got to the bench, and they explained everything well.
“I know if you see it from outside, I don’t know how it went out, it is not the best image. I have spoken with the boss. I think it was misunderstood. I understand that on television, on social media, they’re talking about this, but I am here to explain it, to say that it wasn’t my intention to go against the manager.
So, what happens next? Perhaps Sarri and Chelsea move past this episode and continue to compete for a top-four finish in the Premier League — they host Tottenham on Wednesday — and to win the Europa League. Even the most one-eyed of fans would struggle to see that scenario playing out, though, after such an ignominious end to a week that began with the end of the club’s FA Cup defence at the hands of Manchester United.
After letting Kepa off the hook despite such a high profile show of dissent, can Sarri effectively manage the rest of the squad? John Terry, the former Chelsea captain who was watching the game while working a pundit on Sky Sports in the UK, suggested that the issue would need to be addressed straightaway.
Sarri’s initial attempt to deal with it gave the impression that players can get away with anything that can be passed off as a misunderstanding. Despite that, he left Wembley smiling and insisting he was still in command.
“I think that, if you saw the match, you can understand very well that, today, the players played exactly the match we prepared yesterday,” he said. “So I think I am in control, fully in control of the situation.”
Time will tell.