Premier League: Maurizio Sarri's tumultuous reign at Chelsea ends in jaded disillusionment as London club yearns revival
Chelsea began their campaign with spring in their steps, but worsened as the season progressed. Sarri's staunch refusal to change his ways in spite of continued mediocrity did not bode well for the club.
Maurizio Sarri's debut season in England was nothing short of toxic
From record defeats to demoralising draws, Sarri divided the Chelsea fanbase like no other manager
The transfer ban and Chelsea’s recent cost-cutting methods have heavily put the focus on Chelsea’s youth academy
Just eleven months after Chelsea hired a manager poised to make them play an attractive brand of football, the London club is on the lookout for their 12th manager in the Roman Abramovich era. This time, however, the context is quite different.
Take any regular season and the sword almost always hangs on a Chelsea manager at the first sight of trouble. And Maurizio Sarri's debut season in England was nothing short of toxic. Speculations were rife all throughout the season that the former-Napoli man might be shown the road, probably the only thing stopping the hierarchy was the fact that Chelsea had burnt through a host of top managers in recent seasons, with no suitable candidate available to take over in the business end of the season.
“I hope we can provide some entertaining football for our fans, and that we will be competing for trophies at the end of the season, which is what this club deserves,” Sarri promised in his first ever press conference for the Blues.
The infamous Sarriball made its way to England, albeit not in in the original form which was displayed by Napoli, and Chelsea did win a European cup at the culmination of the season, yet fans will concur that there was something lacking in the club's season — the usual verve associated with the finest club in London missing altogether.
Following a World Cup summer, the lack of a pre-season definitely hampered Sarri’s plan of introducing a different style of play in Chelsea, but the Italian did not do himself any favours with his continued stubbornness, even in the face of adversity. Unlike Mourinho and Conte's disastrous seasons, Chelsea completely backed Sarri in the market, allowing him to cherry-pick his choice of midfielders.
Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic arrived, while Eden Hazard's sense of responsibility meant the club could avail the magical Belgian's services for another year. Expectations were moderate, to begin with, as Chelsea fans understood that it wasn’t an easy task for Sarri to implement a new system right from the get-go.
However, what followed was totally bizarre. Chelsea began their campaign with spring in their steps, but slipped as the season progressed; their game no longer spoke of an identity of their own, as they morphed into a team which was simply going through the motions. With Manchester City and Liverpool producing a sensational title race which went down to the wire, not many expected Chelsea to provide a meaty challenge but progress in all aspects was certainly hoped for.
Sarri's staunch refusal to change his ways in spite of continued mediocrity did not bode well for the club. His insistence on playing N'Golo Kante further up the field and his repeated substitutions of Kovacic with Barkley (disregarding the fact that both players offered similar end products) drew ridicule from both supporters and the British media. The fact that Chelsea kept leaking goals while there was not any significant improvement in the offensive aspect as their system was successfully countered by almost every other club in the country further haunted Sarri.
Sarri slowly integrated Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson Odoi into the first team to his credit, but Ethan Ampadu and Andreas Christensen's rare appearances implied more could have been done by the Italian to bring in fresh blood from the academy.
While all top clubs barring Manchester City and Liverpool stuttered, a ‘top four’ finish was secured with relative ease, but even the staunchest of Sarri's fans would agree that it was downright due to poor performances from the remaining clubs. From record defeats to demoralising draws, Sarri divided the Chelsea fanbase like no other manager has ever been able to do before. He enjoyed a cult following from a group of fans while a larger section booed him and his tactics — leading to a toxic culture hitherto unseen at the Stamford Bridge.
Sarri finished the season with a Europa League triumph, but the general consensus remained that his first ever medal in football was more due to Chelsea’s serial winning abilities rather than the Italian's impact on the club. One of the most picturesque moments was captured in Baku when Sarri’s joy at winning his first ever trophy was evident, but that wasn’t enough to move the Chelsea supporters, who had grown increasingly disillusioned with him.
His previous issues with homophobia and his habit of smoking did not impact Chelsea in any way, for the 60-year-old was a consummate professional on and off the pitch, but it was pretty evident that Sarri was never the right fit for Chelsea as a club. The treatment meted out to Gary Cahill and his reluctance to address his disconnect to the supporters added fuel to the fire.
Eden Hazard’s departure and Chelsea’s impending transfer ban, with serious injuries to both Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi meant the upcoming season would have been even more difficult and it barely came as a surprise when the Italian chose to depart as Juventus came calling.
Unlike the slew of Chelsea managers he succeeded, Sarri's case is unique for he is leaving Stamford Bridge on his own terms, that too after securing a managerial position at a more traditionally superior club in a league of his preference. Yet, there is a sigh of relief in the bylanes of Fulham Road, for his divisiveness was becoming a significant concern for match-going supporters.
Unconditional support should not be a dilemma for the man Chelsea is lining up to replace Sarri — their leading goalscorer and the man who led the club to its greatest night in history at Munich in 2012 — Frank Lampard.
The English midfielder's impressive debut season in management at Derby County with former Chelsea youth manager Jody Morris as his assistant grabbed a lot of eyeballs although Derby failed at the final hurdle of promotion to the Premier League. That Lampard was marked as a long-term managerial target for the distant future is a barely concealed fact in the corridors of Cobham, but Sarri's departure has only hastened the process.
The Englishman's inexperience in top-flight management and Derby's poor underlying stats in spite of their overachievement in the league will be a cause of concern for the Chelsea faithful, but it is expected that the Blues legend will be provided with time to find his footing, with the exception of drastically disastrous results.
The transfer ban and Chelsea’s recent cost-cutting methods have heavily put the focus on Chelsea’s youth academy which continues to produce brilliant footballers plying their trade all across Europe, as members of the incredible loan army and for other clubs as well. While chasing trophies will always be a part of the Chelsea DNA, there is an increasing belief that Frank Lampard could be the man who provides Chelsea some self-sustainability in the managerial column.
It won’t be an easy task, but Chelsea are on the absolute brink here, in terms of finding an identity for themselves and only smart decisions with a little bit of patience from all across the board could help them achieve their staggering highs once again.
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