Even though he might not want to admit it, Maurizio Sarri has changed, and Chelsea’s results have improved, but even after a third place league finish was secured, the knives are still out for the Italian on the eve of a second cup final of the season, where even victory is unlikely to be his saving grace.
“I do not need to change,” Sarri refuted after Chelsea’s 6-0 humiliation to Manchester City in February. “The players need to change.”
Yet, Sarri has not been a man of his word. Chelsea have changed under Sarri, and are no longer as ponderous in their passing game – they averaged just over 100 passes less per game since the City humiliation than before the Etihad clash in the Premier League this season.
Nonetheless, the future looks bleak for Sarri, even if he manages to steer Chelsea to Europa League glory. But how has it got to this?
Chelsea basically finished top of the league, if you take into account that Manchester City and Liverpool are in a league of their own, having amassed the second and third highest ever Premier League points totals this season.
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Furthermore, Chelsea lost on penalties to treble-winning City in the League Cup final, and have a chance to garner some silverware in their second final of the season when they take on Arsenal in the Europa League final in Baku.
Somehow, though, despite performing about as well as has been physically possible this season, even success in the Europa League final looks unlikely to save the Italian – but just how does Sarri remain so unpopular? The man himself is certainly baffled.
“Now we are back in the Champions League,” an emotional Sarri said at his pre-match press conference on the banks of the Caspian Sea in the Azerbaijan capital on Tuesday.
“We played the [League Cup] final, in a competition we beat Liverpool and Tottenham, the two Champions League finalists. Then we were beaten by Manchester City, the best team in Europe.
“We have played a very good season,” Sarri quipped in response to the third successive question about his future. “If now we win tomorrow, the season will become wonderful.”
His players support him too.
“He is someone with a great heart and passion for football and it is why he has this feeling. Everybody believes in his idea,” defender David Luiz said in the pre-match press conference.
“In his first season we started very well, everyone says we are ready to fight for [the] title, but then he brought us back up again and we have been in two finals.”
The problem is, people did buy into Sarri’s idea earlier in the season, especially as Chelsea went on their winning run, alongside Liverpool and City at the top of the table.
The change in Chelsea’s fortunes, though, does not really seem to have come about due to any particular tactical innovation – Sarri has perhaps simply benefitted from the misfortune of others.
Since the City mauling, Chelsea went from sixth to third, but nobody could have foreseen just how ridiculously Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, the latter two only domestically, would fall off a cliff in the final few months of the season.
In the same time period, Arsenal won just seven of their remaining 12 league games, while Tottenham and United mustered seven wins, not each, between them, from 24 games combined.
For three teams to be so poor, three teams of the ilk of this triumvirate, is unprecedented.
Chelsea did of course improve, losing only two more games as they hauled themselves up to third, with Sarri’s slight change of approach, going more direct, pressing higher and putting less emphasis on pass, pass, pass, reaping rewards.
But some changes simply came too late for fans who just cannot warm to the Italian. All season fans had been singing Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi’s name from the terraces, with Sarri ignoring such calls as he overlooked the club’s burgeoning talents.
Once Sarri did eventually cave, towards the end of the season, the results, as fans had predicted, improved.
“It sounds stupid but Chelsea fans expect the manager to have a bit of swag,” Chelsea fan Jake Ralph, who made the arduous trip to Baku for the final via two overnight trains, said.
“He just hasn’t developed a link with the fans whatsoever.”
And that is what it comes down to – Chelsea fans expect more. Even if results are not all that bad.
Such attitudes are easily cultured at a club where hiring and firing manager after manager has become the norm, and now Sarri, despite his emotional protestations in Baku, will just be another statistic on the never-ending supply of managers who think they are different.
His pride may well not be damaged, especially if he wins the Europa League but Sarri just seems damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t – Chelsea fans have made up their minds, and it seems there is no going back.News Now - Sport News