Maurizio Sarri: Why has Chelsea boss struggled to impose his methods in England?

By James HorncastleEuropean football writer
Maurizio Sarri
Maurizio Sarri took over at Chelsea in July 2018

When asked if this figures as the most difficult time of his career, Maurizio Sarri shook his head and laughed. "No, not at all," he said.

"I had a lot of problems in the past, especially in League One and League Two [in Italy]." A lack of patience and the sudden threat of the sack are nothing strange to anyone who has worked the Italian game.

If anything, the state of the art surroundings, Premier League gloss and guaranteed wage make Chelsea infinitely more comfortable than comparable bleak spells with Valdema, Perugia, Arezzo, Sorrento and Hellas Verona.

People are all too quick to forget that 60-year-old Sarri's first taste of top-flight football came as recently as 2015.

By that stage he'd been coaching for almost 20 years. Watching the style of football he served up at Empoli and Napoli caused great introspection in Italy. Why hadn't anyone put faith in him earlier?

The owners who had rushed to judgement on Sarri - dismissing him after 17 games here or 22 games there - were lined up in a rogues' gallery and effectively asked to explain themselves by the media. One of his former collaborators, Piero Bencini, said: "He never found the right environment."

That was until he met Fabrizio Corsi, the Empoli president who stood by him when he failed to win until his 10th league game in charge, picking up just three points from the first 27 available at the Castellani.

The question then is: will Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich be as understanding as Corsi? Or will he succumb to the temptation so many of Sarri's other paymasters have been unable to resist and sack him prematurely?

Sarri has reached a cup final, made it through to the last 16 of the Europa League and led the Blues to wins against Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs. Leaving aside the Community Shield, he did begin the campaign with six straight wins and experienced defeat for the first time at the end of November.

Historically a slow starter, the Italian hit the ground running - at least in terms of results - in a way he had only managed in his final two years at Napoli.

Maurizio Sarri on the bench when manager of Empoli
Sarri spent three seasons in charge of Empoli

It was a surprise for a number of reasons.

Negotiations to appoint Sarri and end what remains an ongoing dispute with Antonio Conte went on all summer. Conte even started pre-season, a precious period of time Sarri missed to get to know his new players and introduce his ideas.

By the time he arrived, Chelsea were due in Australia for a tour and upon their return had the Community Shield to prepare for. The World Cup shortened an already curtailed pre-season and meant several players - principally their Brazil, France and Belgium internationals - reported for duty later than usual.

That is hardly an ideal situation for someone who has to teach a style of play that is both sophisticated and diametrically opposed to what Chelsea were used to, not only under Conte but also his predecessor Jose Mourinho.

Complicating matters further was the decision of Thibaut Courtois, the best goalkeeper at the World Cup, to leave for Real Madrid in August - leaving Sarri to integrate Kepa Arrizabalaga into a role he sees as key to his team's build-up in a new league with a different language.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of forwards Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian, who have all reached the stage of their contracts when a decision needs to be taken, has laid bare a couple of things.

One is the potential of a major squad overhaul in the summer, which nobody could fail to see on the horizon before Chelsea were given a two-window transfer ban by Fifa on Friday, a decision the club is appealing against.

The other is the sporting-director-shaped hole Chelsea have not filled since Michael Emenalo left.

Pull in other factors, like the shelving of plans to redevelop Stamford Bridge, and you can perhaps appreciate that this isn't an easy job for anyone who needs time and a long-term view.

It's hard to escape the feeling Chelsea are drifting.

Compare this to the situation of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City - who made appointments at board level specifically with him in mind, laying the groundwork for him before he even arrived - and the difference is stark.

Signing midfielder Jorginho and, six months later, striker Gonzalo Higuain - a player Chelsea had the chance to buy in the summer, albeit on less favourable terms - is not enough on its own to bring Sarri's style to life.

Jorginho has been written off as too slow for English football. Stop him and you stop Chelsea, or so the theory goes.

But the 27-year-old Italy international - who would have signed for City had Sarri not moved to Chelsea - succeeded at Napoli because he had better movement around him. A more multi-faceted team that gave opponents more to think about allowed him time and space to have a greater influence.

Bringing in another quick passer with knowledge of Sarri's methods - there was interest in Leandro Paredes, who left Zenit for PSG over the winter - would perhaps have facilitated that, as would any effort to sign full-backs to replace the existing wing-backs bought for Conte.

Those crying out for Callum Hudson-Odoi to play should ask themselves whether the England Under-19 winger would have got any more game time under Sarri's predecessors.

As with City, the pressure from supporters and the media to give the club's youngsters a chance is immense. At Etihad Stadium, England Under-21 midfielder Phil Foden has made only two more starts than Hudson-Odoi, and neither 18-year-old has been in the XI for a Premier League game.

Hudson-Odoi's contract stance at Stamford Bridge is as much to do with encouragement from seeing English teenagers Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson blossom in the Bundesliga as any discouragement at Chelsea, where the lack of opportunity for young players pre-dates the current manager.

Manchester City score their sixth goal against Chelsea earlier in February
Chelsea have lost four of their five away matches in 2019 - including a 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City

Sarri has made mistakes, that much is clear.

The manner and margin of recent defeats, the like-for-like changes, the questioning of the players' mentality, and the perceived lack of imagination from someone supposed to have a big idea has sparked unrest at the club. But the Chelsea hierarchy knew what they were getting into.

Sarri is unlike the Italian coaches hired in the past. Whereas Conte and Carlo Ancelotti are tailors who cut their cloth accordingly, Sarri has a style and he won't compromise on it.

In that sense he is like Guardiola, who needed a year to get his ideas across and to figure out which players he could count on to implement his philosophy, and where signings were needed.

Four competitions and no winter break means little or no time to work on anything other than recovery and a gameplan for your next opponents. City finished fourth in that first season.

Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp led Liverpool to eighth and fourth twice before moulding the team in his image and shaping the culture necessary to mount a sustained title challenge this season.

Both were doubted but could at least point to past success to play for time.

Sarri, a former banker, does not have that line of credit to fall back on, nor a palpable enough sense of progress and improvement to cool down the heat of the hot seat.

Few fans believe Chelsea will lift the Carabao Cup on Sunday. Instead, they fear another humiliation at the hands of City.

However, all is not lost - even with a loss.

The top four is only a point away and the Europa League remains another entry point to next season's Champions League.

But defeat will be a test of the Stamford Bridge board's commitment to Sarri.


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