It was a little over two years and some months ago, that Antonio Conte gave what turned into an iconic post-match press conference at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Fresh off of a 3-0 humiliation, the then Chelsea head coach publicly dressed down his players, accused them of lacking the proper attitude and motivation and believing in their own hype over the much harsher reality. “From the first minute we didn’t have the right attitude,” said Conte as his eyes shot daggers at the gathered journalists. “We are a great a team [only] on the paper, not on the pitch.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Conte’s gambit worked. Chelsea won the next 13 league games and waltzed to the Premier League title with a (then) record number of wins.
Now, it’s Sarri’s turn at the hammer, and he’s brought it down with all the force he could muster. He even brought in an interpreter to make sure his words, addressed specifically to his players and not just the media as usual, were coming across as he intended.
“Today I prefer to speak Italian, I want to send a message to my players and I don’t want to speak it wrong in English.”
“I am extremely angry. Very angry indeed because this defeat was due to our mentality more than anything else, our mental approach because we played against a team that was far more determined mentally than we were and this is something I can’t accept.
‘We had a similar issue in the league game at Tottenham, we spoke a great deal about that particular loss and our approach at the time. I thought we had managed to overcome this issue but it seems we have the issue with having a sufficient amount of determination, being mentally solid, so I am not happy because I prefer to come into the press conference and to speak to the players and talk about tactics and why we lost from a tactical and strategy point of view, but the fact of the matter is it appears this group of players is extremely difficult to motivate.’
The issue of motivation has been a constant concern for many years now. Seasons of feast followed by seasons of famine, with performances to match, speak to that clear as day. Mourinho, Conte, and now Sarri have all identified it and tried to solve it, at times by cajoling, other times by browbeating. The first two succeeded for a while, then succumbed to it. Sarri will eventually succumb, too, but he’s obviously hoping that first he gets to feast as well.
“It is a difficult question to answer, it seems to me that as a group of players they are not particularly aggressive from a mental point of view, they don’t have that ferocity in their mentality and that is down to the type of players they are, their characteristics, and it is something that is difficult to change. It could take quite a long time but it could be changed by a new player coming in or perhaps by one of the old heads in the team assuming responsibility and driving the team forward.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Chelsea FC
Chelsea’s official website surprisingly relayed most of Sarri’s post-match quotes verbatim (by way of the translator), but they did leave out this one bit, which perhaps shows that this may in fact be the crux of the issue.
“I don’t think a player at this level can’t be afraid to face up to their responsibilities. The best thing that can happen is that the players and I talk very openly about what happens. I am the person responsible for the players and it is important for them to have the attitude, and if they can’t then maybe they shouldn’t be playing at this level.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Football.London
The pin has been pulled. Your move, “the players”. Which old head will take control? Azpilicueta? David Luiz? Eden Hazard? The list is as short as it is unimpressive.
“Absolutely. I am aware this is a team that is never going to be well-known for its battling and fighting qualities because those are not the characteristic that we are going to have, but what we need to become is a team that is capable of adapting, so be a team that is capable of suffering for 10 or 15 minutes in a game but then playing our own football.”
Suffering, indeed. Another iconic Conte line was about finding the team’s inner fire and stoking it into a blazing inferno. Conte’s fiery personality certainly helped in that case. Who will light the fire now?
Sarri departs having buried his players' performance. One more question chucked at him. 'What more do you want?' he asks, and smiles for the first time. I think he may have played this card before— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) January 19, 2019
That’s not to say, since I’ve brought him into this narrative extensively, that Conte was perfect — though, for me, he was very close — but in addition to demanding change from his players, he also demanded change from himself. He assured that he had “no magic wand”, but his tactical revolution enabled the team to respond in the way he wanted them to respond. Before he was known as “stubborn” Conte, he was Conte “the tailor”. Based on the last few years of evidence, Sarri isn’t in danger of entering the latter business, though to his credit he acknowledged that he shares responsibility for the (relative) dreadfulness (we’re still fourth!) of the current situation.
“When you see this kind of game when one team is more determined than the other, we can’t really talk about tactics. From a technical point of view I think the teams are pretty much on the same level but when Arsenal are more determined than us, the tactics don’t even come into it. Their high level of determination was pretty obvious throughout the game, particularly in both penalty areas. They were clinical when they scored their goals and in defence we stood off and we were not as determined, we were not strong enough, particularly the first goal we conceded.
“Don’t get me wrong, we could have lost that game anyway but we could have lost it for tactical reasons and technical reasons, but we lost it because of our determination. Of course I couldn’t possibly say I am not responsible as well at least in part for the mental approach. That is something that we have to share.”
Well, sort of sharing in the responsibility.
“[Today], our defending ended up with us running backwards rather than coming and pressing high up the pitch; we are a team that should be playing one or two touches whereas instead at times we were taking seven or eight touches and this is something we don’t want to happen, we want to be playing our own football and this something we are going to have to try to change.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Chelsea FC
Change is indeed needed. But what shape will that change take? We’ll find out soon enough, one suspects.
I haven't been in a press conference like that in a long time. Sarri didn't quite go as far as "my work was betrayed" but it wasn't far off.— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) January 19, 2019
This is going to be a very interesting week at Cobham... #cfc
The season of course is far from lost or over. While Chelsea have been ruled out of the title race some time ago, we’re still (mostly) on course for the top four and we’re still alive in the FA Cup, the Europa League, and the League Cup. Thursday’s second leg against Spurs will provide an immediate chance to respond. That was already an important match, now it just might have become the most important.