Kepa's defiance overshadows Chelsea's improved performance

Chelsea can’t escape the drama. Just when it seemed like they had a chance to knock off Manchester City, all hell broke loose. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s refusal to come off at the end of extra time canceled out the goodwill the Blues earned over the previous 120 minutes of disciplined football.

It left manager Maurizio Sarri – who showed rare flexibility in Sunday’s League Cup final – with more questions to answer. He had responded to criticism of his tactics with refreshing proactiveness at Wembley, even granting the ostracized Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek meaningful minutes over Gonzalo Higuain and Mateo Kovacic, and yet it still wasn’t enough to stem the tide against him.

Kepa’s impetuousness undermined Sarri’s authority and ultimately took away from what could’ve been a building block of a performance.

Chelsea did a fantastic job against a City side that carved them up just a few weeks ago. They learned their lessons from that 6-0 shellacking at the Etihad on Feb. 10, forgoing the rigorous pressing and open play for a more responsible approach. Sarri now knew that going toe-to-toe with one of the most talented teams in football was a bad idea.

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Sarri should’ve felt prouder after the match. Holding City to a 0-0 draw and losing on penalties is nothing to be ashamed of. Chelsea were much more composed and comfortable within themselves, giving City little away for free. They limited Pep Guardiola’s men to just three shots on target and nearly made them pay on the counterattack. It helped that City miscued an uncharacteristic number of crosses and passes, but Chelsea made it hard for them to find passing lanes. Space was at a premium.

The fact that Sarri sacrificed possession for pragmatism is a big deal. He’s widely known for his stubborn commitment to the same players and system, but Sunday’s final forced Sarri to adapt.

Maybe it was the sense of moment that changed Sarri. He’s never won a trophy as a senior manager, and the opportunity to end that barren run may have convinced the Italian to alter his ways. Or maybe the 6-0 defeat scared Sarri into another course of action.

Whatever the motivation, it was an encouraging sign. Sarri showed on Sunday he can be more than a 4-3-3 merchant and that he can preach more than high-octane football.

The evidence on the pitch suggests Sarri does indeed have control over Chelsea. Kepa’s disobedience may make it seem like the manager has lost his authority, but Sunday’s performance is proof that the players can follow Sarri’s orders. He’s looking at the game objectively, and that’s an important development.

Too bad it’s being overshadowed by a 24-year-old’s unruly behavior. Even if it was a misunderstanding, there’s no denying the unnecessary drama it’s brought upon the club.

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