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​Why Sarri must learn to be more flexible at Chelsea

COMMENT: "It appears this group of players is extremely difficult to motivate" is the kind of rhetoric one expects to hear in the final throws of a managerial cycle; the exasperated confession of someone already accepting their fate. But the hope, on both sides, is that Maurizio Sarri is only just getting started as Chelsea manager.

His angry words after the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal on January 19 were intended to spark a reaction from a squad that is slowing down rather than speeding up, that is drifting further away from Sarri-ball as we enter the most important months of the season.

Under ordinary circumstances Sarri's outburst would not gain so much attention, but Chelsea is not an ordinary club and the Premier League is not an ordinary division. A culture of player power lurks at Stamford Bridge – just ask Antonio Conte – while the traditional (and reasonable) expectation of a transitional year has essentially disappeared thanks to the financial imperative of a top four finish.

And so Sarri's tactical stubbornness - arguably the biggest reason for Chelsea's poor form - coupled with his furious criticism of the players may prove to end Roman Abramovich's experiment with a manager who has never coached an over-dog, has never dealt with expectation, pressure and egotism quite like this before. The players must learn to be more malleable, but so must Sarri.

There is faith within the boardroom that Sarri will still make next season's Champions League, virtually guaranteeing he will be given a second summer window to remould the club in his image. It should not be forgotten that Sarri's task is to undo some 15 years of squad building based, at least loosely, on the tactical foundations laid down by Jose Mourinho. Reactive managers who prioritise defensive resilience have built this club under Abramovich, and it shows.

Few Chelsea players possess the attributes needed to embrace the coach's belief in ultra-fluidity, a piercing form of high-tempo possession football that relies on the perfect synchronisation of agile, nimble-footed midfielders and attackers. The issue for Sarri isn't just that he doesn't have the right players but that he refuses to compromise his style.

The theory, presumably, is that they won't learn without repetition: no matter that N'Golo Kante cannot perform the functions of a one-touch box-to-box midfielder; that Matteo Kovacic isn't good enough as the left-sided playmaker; that Pedro and Willian don't have the energy to roam freely from the right.

It is a starkly different approach to the highly adaptable, trial-and-error tactical approach of Unai Emery at Arsenal this year, and while there are many differences between the two managers the most pertinent is Emery's chastening experience as Paris Saint-Germain head coach. It would appear that as he struggled at a super-club, watching his meticulous battle plans get ignored by Neymar, Emery learnt pragmatism. During his brief spell at a true over-dog he learnt to fight for results, not ideology.

Perhaps Sarri will learn this lesson the hard way. The Premier League is unforgiving, a hyper-competitive division that, with 10 matches against fellow big clubs per season, demands plasticity and the relaxation of tactical philosophy for a more varied, unpredictable approach. As Pep Guardiola famously grew to acknowledge during his first season in England, when an obsession with winning "second balls" reshaped his thinking, the Premier League is a chaotic environment that punishes steadfast belief in a singular way of playing.

Right now, it's too easy to predict how Chelsea will line up: stick a man on Jorginho, double up on Eden Hazard, and leave the centre-backs alone as you cut off the passing lines into midfield. That has generally done the trick for Chelsea's opponents over the last month, with Sarri's side finding the net just ten times in ten matches in all competitions prior to last weekend's simple 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday.

This could simply be a natural dip in form, of course, and with Chelsea still averaging more than two points per game Sarri's debut campaign has been a relative success. He is undoubtedly an excellent coach, and unlike previous Chelsea managers whose players have rebelled against their methods the current crop appear to enjoy working with the Italian. Assuming the board give him another summer Sarri has time to prove that he simply needs a major overhaul of the squad to get the right players – technically and mentally – for Sarri-ball to function. This theory gets tested for the first time with the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain.

What made Higuain such a success at Napoli under Sarri wasn't just the 36 Serie A goals in 35 games, but his ability to drop deeper and link the play. This is such a vital part of Sarri-ball that Eden Hazard has been deputising in this role while World Cup winner Olivier Giroud warms the bench. Is this one shift – Higuain up front, Hazard back out to the left - enough to trigger a flurry of wins and a sudden uptake of investment in Sarri's tactical methods?

Sarri needs it to be the case. Responding to his angry post-Arsenal comments critics have rightly pointed out that motivating players is very much part of the manager's job description, and in fairness his words may yet prove to inspire the players to redouble their efforts. If not, then Higuain needs to hit the ground running for Chelsea to avoid a chastening final three months of the campaign.

Chelsea's high expectations are a novel experience for Sarri. At the top end of the Premier League there is no space to complain about a squad's psychological demerits, no sympathy for complaints about resources. Unless Abramovich unexpectedly spends heavily in the summer, tactical pragmatism is a trait Sarri will have to learn. For the modern footballer motivation is something a coach must earn, not expect.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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