Chelsea are going the wrong direction. While the idea that they were in the title hunt might always have been fanciful, their performances, combined with their underlying numbers suggested they’d at least cruise to third while playing significantly better than the teams behind them. That hasn’t happened, and instead they find themselves in a fight for their top four lives.
As Chelsea’s table position has deteriorated, so have their performances. It’s not simply that Chelsea’s results, which outstripped their level of play during the early months of the season, have returned to their underlying numbers, it’s that their underlying numbers have gotten worse.
The fact that there has been a noticeable decline in the team complicates most defenses of manager Maurizio Sarri. While it was always reasonable to expect a new manager to take some time to successfully introduce a new style of play, the fact that the team is actually getting worse as the season progresses, does not suggest a side that is slowly being brought along into a new style. This isn’t the story of a team that had some growing pains adapting from Antonio Conte’s primarily off ball approach to Sarri’s possession heavy attempt. It’s rather the story of a side that is not picking up his approach effectively at all.
Accordingly, the defense of Sarri has shifted. Now, it’s that the squad is simply poorly constructed for Sarri, and that a club which was built to succeed under Antonio Conte could never become a side capable of playing Sarriball without a complete overhaul first (a task which has incidentally been made harder by a transfer ban handed down by FIFA, although one which could reasonably be delayed by appeal). There are three problems with this defense.
The first is historical. Sarri took over Napoli in the summer of 2015. In his first season he finished second in Serie A with 82 points. That was a massive 19-point improvement over the team’s previous fifth place season. And it’s not like he took over from a similar manager. Rafa Benitez had previously been in charge, and while Rafa has many strengths, intricate possession based football is not exactly one of them. So, the last time Sarri took over a club, he took a team that had been struggling, playing a different brand of football and immediately improved them dramatically in his first season. And while it might not have been reasonable to expect the same degree of immediate success in England, expecting demonstrable progress is a pretty low bar. It’s one that Sarri has, so far, failed to clear.
But, wait, I hear you cry, didn’t Napoli remake their roster for Sarri when he showed up? The answer to that is… kind of, and it brings us to the second problem with saying that it’s important to wait for Sarri to have his players in place. The current Chelsea squad already looks very very different from the one Conte deployed last season. At Napoli, in Sarri’s first summer, the team moved on from Gokhan Inler in midfield and brought in Allan from Udinese. Quite quickly he became an integral part of Sarri’s midfield. The team also brought in two players from his old club, Empoli; Elseid Hysaj who became a regular at fullback and Mirko Valdifiori a defensive midfielder who you’ve never heard of.
Chelsea, similarly did a lot of work to overhaul this squad for Sarri last summer. In order to facilitate moving from a manager who was happy not to have the ball to one who’s possession hungry, Chelsea went out and got a new midfield. They not only bought Sarri Jorginho, the midfield pivot from his old side, but also Mateo Kovačić on loan from Real Madrid. Additionally, after they assented to Thibaut Courtois’ demands to move to Real Madrid, they brought in Kepa Arrizabalaga to replace him, emphasizing the need for a keeper who can play with his feet. One problem though, Kepa has not played particularly well with his hands, and is putting up a decidedly subpar shot stopping season.
Then, as Chelsea struggled, the team once again went out and brought in an old Sarri hand, Gonzalo Higuain, to lead the line. Over a third of Chelsea’s regular starting lineup is new this season. The problem is as much that the new players, the ones bought for Sarri, aren’t performing, as much as it is that the old guard are holding the team back. It’s reasonable for a manager to struggle with a squad that doesn’t fit his needs, it’s way less so to claim that completely remaking the midfield and bringing in his old star striker isn’t enough of a makeover to expect results.
But maybe that really is the problem. Maybe no matter what Chelsea did, this team could not succeed given how their winger situation is currently constituted. It’s at least worth considering that Pedro and Willian are simply an impossible match for this system. They’re both past 30 and maybe those old dogs simply ain’t about to learn any new tricks. On top of that, maybe Hazard, great as he is, isn’t particularly suited to this system that needs him to play more as a goal scorer than leading the break in transition.
Even this isn’t a great defense of Sarri. After all, Sarri keeps playing them. This is the final frustrating point. What would be the point of continuing to play two wingers who are over 30 if they are simply never going to be good enough in the system Sarri wants to play, when you not only have Callum Hudson-Odoi waiting in the wings, but another young replacement in Christian Pulisic coming this summer. Sure, maybe Hudson-Odoi isn’t ready, but in that case, it would make more sense to tweak the system to get the most out of the players on the pitch (in the understanding that they won’t still be there when better fitting players come in). Both playing Willian and Pedro, and not adjusting the system to get the most out of them, while leaving Hudson-Odoi on the bench is the worst of all possible worlds.
The question at hand for Chelsea is, should (assuming they can delay a transfer ban via appeal) they continue to remake this squad in Sarri’s image? It’s a big risk to put all your eggs in the Sarri basket, especially with a transfer ban looming. Before committing to that project Chelsea need to take a long hard look at why his transition with this side has been so much rougher than his transition at Napoli was. It’s certainly true that the situation at Chelsea isn’t perfect for Sarri, but the situation at Napoli wasn’t either. There, he made do. Now he’s banging square pegs into round holes, shrugging and saying, I’ll be better when I have some round pegs. It might be true, but other managers out there are better at reshaping those pegs.
The situation certainly hasn’t been perfect for Sarri at Chelsea, and maybe if it was we’d see him become a roaring success. But most managers don’t get to deal with perfect situations, and it’s now time to wonder exactly how much imperfect Sarri is capable of dealing with while still getting results. If Sarri can’t point to some sort of progress after replacing a third of his starters with new acquisitions, maybe Chelsea shouldn’t be so confident that he’ll be destined to succeed if they just replace the rest of them.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association