By almost any measure, Maurizio Sarri has done a good job in his first season as Chelsea manager. A scoreless stalemate at Leicester City on Sunday, together with Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 draw with Everton, secured a third-place finish in the Premier League. The Blues also reached the final of the EFL Cup, which they were a little unfortunate to lose to Manchester City on penalties, and are one game away from winning a European trophy for the fifth time in the club’s history. All things considered, it has been far from a bad campaign.
That is particularly true when you consider the circumstances of last summer, which were less than ideal for a manager moving to a new club in a new country. Sarri was not officially unveiled until the middle of July, with predecessor Antonio Conte taking the first few days of pre-season training despite the fact that everyone knew he was destined to depart. Kepa Arrizabalaga was acquired to replace Real Madrid-bound Thibaut Courtois, but Jorginho was the only outfielder signed on a permanent basis, with Mateo Kovacic snapped up on a season-long loan. Given that Chelsea had finished fifth in 2017/18, this was not the type of business to leave fans dreaming of a title tilt.
A positive start gave the impression that the west Londoners were indeed championship challengers, as Sarri’s side went 12 games unbeaten before suffering a 3-1 defeat by Tottenham in late November. Chelsea were outplayed at Wembley that day, but a return of 28 points from the first 36 on offer had put them right in the mix at the top of the table.
Losses to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester in December were offset by victories over Fulham, Manchester City, Brighton and Hove Albion and Crystal Palace, but Chelsea’s form took a turn for the worst at the turn of the year. A stuttering goalless draw at home to Southampton was a sign of things to come, and although the Blues recovered to beat Newcastle United 2-1, they then proceeded to lose three consecutive away games without scoring a single goal, going down 2-0 to Arsenal, 4-0 to Bournemouth and 6-0 to Manchester City.
It was during this period that Sarri was under most pressure, although a positive performance against City in the EFL Cup final and a 2-0 triumph over Tottenham in the top flight bought the Italian some much-needed breathing space. It did not take much for the discontent to resurface, though, most notably in the fortunate 2-1 victory over Cardiff City in March, a game in which the Chelsea fans were vocally critical of their unpopular manager.
It is precisely Sarri’s standing with supporters that casts his future into doubt. During the Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea have enjoyed most of their success with pragmatic managers at the helm, with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte both focused on winning by any means necessary – although Carlo Ancelotti’s 2009/10 vintage are a notable exception. Mourinho and Conte’s sides were certainly capable of playing good football on their day, but Chelsea fans have had no problem with watching their team grinding out victories with a reactive approach.
It has long been opined that Abramovich has always craved a manager who can marry positive results with an attractive style; the Russian may have thought he had found his man in Sarri, whose Napoli team played some stunning stuff on a regular basis. However, the football has largely been stodgy and predictable this term, and Chelsea fans simply have not taken to the more dogmatic, idealistic Sarri. The obsession with possession is anathema to the Stamford Bridge faithful, who used to relish Mourinho making disparaging remarks about footballing philosophers who could not match his record of success.
If you judge Sarri purely by the outcome of Chelsea’s season – two cup finals and a top-three finish – it would be inexplicable for the club to even consider sacking him. However, it is hard to ignore the toxicity which has been present throughout the second half of the campaign, the most recent example of which came in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Matters are complicated somewhat by a two-window transfer ban, which Chelsea are still hoping to have delayed or overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Not being able to sign players could either strengthen or weaken Sarri’s position; on the one hand it makes Chelsea a less attractive job to other managers and could lead to Abramovich sticking with the incumbent, but on the other hand it could persuade him to make a change since the ex-Napoli coach has not convinced with the group of players currently at his disposal.
Whatever happens in the Europa League final, looks set to be another interesting summer at Stamford Bridge.
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