It seems strange to say now, but Chelsea actually began brightly in Sunday’s clash with Manchester City. The visitors to the Etihad Stadium made their intentions clear early on, pressing high up the pitch from the very first whistle in an attempt to disrupt their opponents’ build-up play. To an extent, it worked: City, who have grown accustomed to visiting sides camping on the edge of their own penalty area, initially looked uncomfortable, but their superior quality ultimately told – and to devastating effect.
Perhaps things would have been different had Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard done a better job of marking Bernardo Silva, who was afforded ample time and space to set up Raheem Sterling for the opener in the fourth minute. City’s second was a moment of individual brilliance from the superb Sergio Aguero, who had missed a sitter moments previously, before Ross Barkley laid the third on a plate for the Argentina international.
City were not done there for the first half, making it 4-0 in the 25th minute through Ilkay Gundogan – although goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who is yet to convince following his world-record move from Athletic Club, should have kept out the 20-yard strike. Maurizio Sarri’s side stabilised during an improved 10-minute spell towards the end of the first half, but City were in total control after the break and made the scoreline even more emphatic through Aguero – sealing his 11th hat-trick in the Premier League, which equals Alan Shearer’s record – and Sterling. Those goals also pushed the Blues down to sixth place the table, with Arsenal now possessing a superior goal difference and Manchester United having amassed one more point.
This was Chelsea’s heaviest defeat since a 7-0 reverse against Nottingham Forest in 1991. They have not found the back of the net away from home in 2019, losing 2-0 to Arsenal, 4-0 to Bournemouth and now 6-0 to City. Those last two losses mean the Blues have conceded four goals in consecutive games on the road for the first time since December 1990, while only west London neighbours Fulham have had their backline breached more often than Chelsea this calendar year.
Stamford Bridge is not a united place at present. Sarri has been critical of his players in public, stating on more than one occasion that they are a difficult group to motivate, while detractors of the manager point to his inflexibility and the deployment of N’Golo Kante in a more advanced midfield role. Chelsea may be in the Europa League knockout stage, the fifth round of the FA Cup and firmly in the hunt for Champions League qualification, but the mood around the club does not feel at all positive right now.
Chelsea have never been afraid to make big decisions in the middle of the season; Jose Mourinho, their most successful ever manager, departed the club in September 2007 and December 2015. The same fate could easily befall Sarri, although given that the Italian has a track record of delivering the type of football Roman Abramovich has supposedly craved for so long, getting rid of him would speak volumes about the direction in which the club is headed.
“Matches like this can leave a mark,” Sarri told Sky Sports Italia after the game. “It will not be easy to get back on our feet after this. Football is also made of heavy defeats. At half-time I told the lads that, if we were able to react, we would come back stronger than ever.
“My feeling in the week was good and yesterday in the meeting it was good, and in the warm-up. So my feeling was the motivation was the right level. We started well and then conceded the goal after four minutes in a stupid way and at that moment we had to stay in the match. We were not able to do it. We made a lot of mistakes against the wrong opponents; we have to say that they played fantastic football.”
In the same interview Sarri also appeared to call out owner Abramovich, an extremely bold move which could backfire on the former Napoli head coach.
“If the president calls I’ll be happy, seeing as I never hear from him. To be honest, I do not know what to expect.”
Chelsea have been here before, and history tells us that the manager usually pays the ultimate price for poor results. This is a huge moment for the west Londoners, though, and their decision over whether to back or sack Sarri will go right to the heart of the question of what type of club they want to be.
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