Dead man walking! Maurizio Sarri was a man written off even before a ball was kicked at Wembley in the Carabao Cup final featuring his Chelsea side and Manchester City, a team that largely contributed to his plight with a 6-0 thrashing of the Blues two weeks ago.
Reports of the players being disillusioned with the coach's methods, a system that had more glaring flaws than definite advantages, especially with the personnel at disposal, and a disgruntled fanbase very close to the tipping point meant Sarri had too much to turn around too soon to have any realistic chance against a Manchester City side bubbling with confidence and brimming with world-class talent.
It was to be a step too far for Chelsea and so it did prove to be, but not as far as many expected. A dogged Chelsea frustrated Manchester City reducing them to just three shots on target in 120 minutes — a massive improvement from the game at the Etihad. Eventually, Chelsea were only undone in the lottery of penalty shootout.
False nine, real improvement
A big chunk of the credit for Chelsea's improved show at Wembley goes to Sarri who quickly understood the shortcomings of playing his usual high-pressing 4-3-3 system against City and decided to tweak it for the Wembley showdown. Mimicking the tactics he used in the 2-0 win over Pep Guardiola's side in December, the Italian went back to a front three with Eden Hazard playing in the false-nine role.
The change allowed Sarri to play Willian and Pedro on the flanks whose high work rate helped the Blues in pressing and closing down the space for City full-backs to run into. Guardiola's teams rely heavily on their width to open opposition defences. In the new 4-5-1 system, Chelsea denied any room for City's attacking players to exploit in Chelsea's final third.
A look at the heatmap of the two teams showed how Chelsea prevented City from penetrating their final third and had to be content with keeping possession around the half-way line, a position from where they couldn't hurt Chelsea.
At the other end, Hazard, who played centrally on his own, was much difficult to mark and had the freedom to roam anywhere in City's final third. Chelsea's subdued approach meant midfielder N'Golo Kante played most of the game alongside Jorginho and the pair were excellent in pressing the City midfielders.
"We decided to drop 20 metres deeper than the last game. City were using their goalkeeper (Ederson) well to beat our press and we were getting into trouble," Sarri said after the game. The strategy although not new, seemed to slightly catch his opposite number by surprise.
"Normally Chelsea press high and I thought we would have to use the goalkeeper more than usual, and Ederson is phenomenal at this. In the end, it didn't happen too much," Guardiola said while explaining the reason to play Ederson over regular cup goalkeeper Arijanet Muric.
Guardiola hailed Chelsea as one of the toughest opponents he had faced while heaping praise on Kante and Jorginho for their work in the middle of the park.
Chelsea had chances of their own in the second half when Kante fired over from a Hazard cut-back before Pedro's indecision in front of the goal got City off the hook. The Belgian's runs into the channels caused all sorts of problems for City beyond the 70th-minute mark as Sarri's men grew into the game.
Sarri has been criticised for being too stubborn with his system, but on Sunday he showed not just the willingness to adapt but also the necessary tactical nous to go toe-to-toe with modern football's most acclaimed tactician.
The Italian, though, has huge faith in his system and style of play which was the primary reason why Chelsea hired him in the first place. Hence, he can be pardoned for sticking with it and hoping to improve it as the season progresses. A few tweaks like the one against City might be needed at times but Chelsea must stand by him and allow him time to bed in his philosophy. A transfer window and a full pre-season can go a long way.
Brave Chelsea kept City modest
Chelsea's display on Sunday was no fluke. It was a disciplined, clean defensive performance with few incidents of last-ditch defending. Their gameplan succeeded over City's and Sarri can claim moral victory from it.
Another aspect of Chelsea's play that went relatively unnoticed was their emergence as an attacking force late in the game. Blues sides of the old often relied heavily on a big target man as the only source of an attacking outlet while playing big teams. In the Carabao Cup final, Chelsea were able to enjoy periods of possession in City's half and certainly carried a threat after the 70th minute.
Despite City's attackers pressing Chelsea's centre-backs, they showed great confidence in their ability on the ball to beat the press and eventually succeeded. As the game ventured into extra time, Guardiola's men abandoned their high-pressing ploy to avoid being vulnerable to Chelsea's pace up front, especially with the fresh Callum Hudson-Odoi on the pitch.
Chelsea obviously were far from perfect in possession. On a few occasions, City nearly unlocked Chelsea on the break but for Jorginho and Antonio Rudiger taking vital yellow cards by making cynical fouls which stopped City's attacks.
However, the biggest plus was that Chelsea kept on pushing ahead with the ball, without being deterred by City's threat. The confidence and composure some of their players had on the ball despite City's closing down was an encouraging sign for Sarri and what he plans to build in the future.
While Chelsea's strategy of defensive and tactical discipline paid dividends in the final, the club would ideally like to be in City's shoes in the future as the team who is able to impose their style on their opponents even at the biggest of stages. That change won't come easier. However, with Sarri on board, there are reasons to harbour hope.
Sarri's class shines through in Kepa controversy
Chelsea goalkeeper's refusal to be substituted in the dying minutes of extra time in the Wembley final didn't just overshadow his team's performance but also took the attention away from City's eventual triumph. The Chelsea manager was furious with his player's disobedience and almost walked out into the tunnel at Wembley. The situation left him and his coaching staff utterly embarrassed.
However, apart from the angry initial reaction, Sarri portrayed a calm and classy figure after the game. The Blues boss didn't throw his goalkeeper under the bus and instead protected him from further media bashing by suggesting that the entire episode was only a "misunderstanding".
The damage was already done, but Sarri did well to keep the frustrations of the night under control and douse the fire with his media comments after the game. The biggest need for Chelsea was to move on from this controversy before the all-important game against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League on Wednesday and the west-Londoners did just that by fining Kepa a week's wages after the goalkeeper offered his apologies in a one-on-one conversation with the manager.
Sarri was quick to accept the apology and have his goalkeeper in line to face Spurs with the matter now closed according to him. "He has apologised to me, his team-mates and the club," said the Italian.
"It is up to the club if they want to discipline him according to the club rules, but for me, this matter is now closed," he added.
The former Napoli boss earned the backing from the club on this matter without hurting his long-term relations with the player. The various voices coming out of Stamford Bridge appear to be encouraging for Sarri, with David Luiz pledging that the entire squad is firmly behind the manager. The reality will be clearer against Spurs on Wednesday, but as things stand, Sarri might just have turned a corner.
The Londoners remain in the hunt for a top-four spot in the Premier League while being one of the favourites to win the Europa League. A more linear form would have made Sarri's tenure a lot less problematic, but the contrasting nature of the first and second half of his time at Stamford Bridge boss puts his work in a poor light. Perspective though must prevail in the higher echelons at Stamford Bridge while assessing Sarri's work in England.
Chelsea may not have won the Carabao Cup on Sunday, but the game provided the Blues with enough evidence that Maurizio Sarri is a man to keep for things much beyond his tactical performance at Wembley.
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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2019 15:35:29 IST