Maurizio Sarri’s steady start to his Chelsea tenure has hit some rocky waters over the last couple months. Losses to Spurs (twice), Wolves, Leicester City, and Arsenal, not to mention the scoreless draws against Everton and Southampton, have exposed weaknesses and punished poor decisions, and the narrative has shifted to the track of palpable discord rather than the promise and fun of Sarri-ball. While we’re surely used to Chelsea coming apart at the seams at regular intervals by now, we haven’t hit the rocks quite this early in a new coach’s tenure since the days of Andre Villas-Boas — an eventuality that wasn’t entirely unanticipated.
As a man who’s stuck to his principles wherever he’s been, from coaching semi-professional minnows to nearly dethroning Juventus with Napoli at the top level of the Italian football, Sarri wasn’t about to change his tune at Chelsea. He will live and die by his principles.
In addition to tactical stubbornness, we were told to expect a similar approach to squad selection. Sarri’s hardly the only coach to prefer a settled starting eleven — a concept that’s often seen as good (see: Chelsea’s Premier League triumphs in 2014-15 and 2016-17, when everybody could name what the starting elevens would be week in and week out) — but like the coaches of those two title-winning sides, Sarri’s faith in his undroppables has come back to haunt him already.
But just as we should’ve anticipated Sarri’s true colors, perhaps he should’ve been anticipating these players to show their true colors as well.
Since the famed and increasingly mythical Old Guard disbanded, there have been recurring issues with the squad’s mentality, which have become increasingly glaring in the last few years. When Chelsea are not in title-winning form, we go from bashing Arsenal 6-0 to losing 1-0 to Crystal Palace the following weekend. Or we give Barcelona hell 1-1 at home, then fold with a 3-0 scoreline in the return leg.
These squads may be built with a focus on and thus oozing with smooth technical ability, but as they have repeatedly proven, they lack the degree of steel and mental fortitude that their predecessors had. José Mourinho, who built those legendary teams, found that out quite tragically during his second go-around at the club.
“[...] When you have some players specially in crucial positions that aren’t at their normal level, it’s difficult.”
“It’s hard. All last season [in 2014-15, when Chelsea won the PL title] I did a phenomenal work and I brought them to a level that is not theirs. Is more than they really are. Or this season we are doing so bad that the players for some reason - not all of them - aren’t [at that level].”
-José Mourinho, December 2015
It’s now Sarri’s turn to call attention to these issues, quite loudly after this weekend’s defeat, though he’d been hinting at them for a while now (certainly since the Spurs loss). However, the trouble for Sarri is that unlike Mourinho or Conte, who tend to make at least a token effort to adapt their preferred systems to the players at their disposal, for Sarri, it’s more a matter of fitting players in as best as he can to an established system. It’s system-first for him, which is a problem when the system does not produce the expected results, despite having versatile players at his disposal (Mourinho and Conte were as different in their approach as they were similar in certain philosophical aspects, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out recently).
Sure, there is a chance that Sarri’s challenge is answered in equal measure by the players stepping up a level (we know they can). But we’ve seen this script play out before and it does not end well.
So, what’s next?
One could argue that Chelsea thrive in chaos. We have the trophies to show for it. But how long can that business model be sustained in today’s football, where Chelsea are no longer the top of the financial food chain?
Going in and out of the Champions League has a detrimental effect on the club’s finances and ability to attract players. It leads to desperate decisions in the transfer market — we don’t have to look too far to find a Drinkwater or Zappacosta or Bakayoko or even a Morata clogging up the books and the pathways of younger, possibly more talented, homegrown players. As much as Chelsea often lack focus on the pitch, we lack just as much focus in the Board room. Is there a long-term plan? The evidence we’ve seen over the years would suggest not.
Chelsea have spent a combined €281.8m fee on the signings of Morata, Bakayoko, Drinkwater, Zappacosta, Emerson, Giroud, Barkley, Batshuayi and Baba Rahman over the past few years. Not exactly the best way to spend €281m.— Mootaz Chehade (@MHChehade) January 20, 2019
Of course, building another ‘Old Guard’ may be hard, if not downright impossible. The once outrageous £30 million sums that Chelsea are used to spending are only good enough for backups and squad players nowadays. It may not ever be possible again to assemble a collection of Captain-material like Chelsea used to have.
So we need to evolve as well, starting as soon as possible.
While the futures of Eden Hazard and Callum Hudson-Odoi will play a significant role in next summer’s transfer window, Chelsea need to focus on determining a direction for the club as well. And an overarching transfer policy that leverages the homegrown talent needs to play an absolutely crucial part in that. Instead of spending sums on a variety of average players, we need to think bigger.
Chelsea’s ability to spend is no longer unrivaled, but we can still mix it up with the big(gest) boys when it comes to individual transfers. Kepa Arrizabalaga is the most expensive goalkeeper in football history and Christian Pulisic wasn’t free either. But Chelsea will do well to remember that technical ability alone isn’t enough. Players tend to outlast and often out-rank managers in terms of influence.
Regardless of how long Sarri does or doesn’t last, regardless of who will be the next coach and the next coach after that, Chelsea need to go back to spending big on difference-makers who match technical ability with the desire to win every match. It is either that or risk being left behind for good by our rivals.