Maurizio Sarri and the perils of not having a Plan B

For Maurizio Sarri, the boisterous harmonies of dissent were inescapable.

With the clock winding down on Chelsea’s FA Cup hopes, and quite possibly the manager’s time in the English capital, a roaring chorus of “F— Sarri-ball” echoed around Stamford Bridge.

The loss to Manchester United marked a third defeat in five matches in all competitions just days after a humbling 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City. Meanwhile, the chants were the culmination of a tumultuous spell at Chelsea, marking the end of Sarri’s honeymoon period with the club, and for supporters, the schism between they and Sarri is entrenched in the manager’s stubbornness.

But it’s not as though Chelsea didn’t know what they were in for.

Darren Walsh / Chelsea FC / Getty

A staunch advocate for a 4-3-3 formation, Sarri arrived in London certain to bring his brand of football in tow. Built around midfield regista Jorginho and swift, precise passing paired with a smothering press, the new manager’s tactics were different from those of his defensive-minded predecessor, Antonio Conte.

Courtesy of an early-season run of 18 unbeaten, it appeared to have been a seamless transition from one Italian to another. It’s since all gone pear-shaped, and Sarri’s unwavering commitment to a tactical approach lacking the proper parts is at the root of it. Man-marking misfit Marcos Alonso is the best example of a square peg in a round hole.

Sarri’s attempts to redefine N’Golo Kante haven’t helped, either. Arguably football’s best defensive midfielder, Kante – who was the ball-stopper on two Premier League winning sides and World Cup victors France – was replaced at the base of the midfield by Sarri’s former Napoli pupil Jorginho. At times, especially away from home, Jorginho has lacked the defensive adeptness to protect a center-half pairing of Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz, making Chelsea’s midfield easy to breach.

Following a November defeat to Spurs, the manager opined that Kante lacks the technical skills to play the regista role.

“I think, as you know, I want to play a central midfielder as a very technical player, a Jorginho or (Cesc) Fabregas,” Sarri said. “I don’t want Kante in this position. He lost his position. He attacked too much the other box. And I think this is not one of the best characteristics of Kante. Maybe it’s only a question of time. But Kante has to stay near to Jorginho, especially when the ball is on the other side.”

Easier said than done, and a bit harsh considering Kante’s perceived limitations have come into focus only under the new manager.

Chris Brunskill/Fantasista / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Kante isn’t the lone man playing out of position. Prior to acquiring another former Sarri apprentice in Gonzalo Higuain, Eden Hazard was frequently tasked with playing as a false No. 9, as Dries Mertens did a season ago at Napoli. Arkadiusz Milik’s injury may have prompted that first decision, but it worked, and perhaps Sarri thought it would translate to the Premier League. It hasn’t, and for a player such as Hazard who thrives in possession while encroaching dangerous spots on the edge of the penalty area, seeing less of the ball was wasteful. Higuain has filled the hole that Sarri didn’t trust Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud to assume adequately, though it’s hard to look past the fact that large chunks of the campaign have witnessed Chelsea’s two best players out of position.

Sarri’s inflexibility doesn’t end there, and for a manager who requires both time and transfer windows to place his imprint on the squad, a club that bins coaches as if there’s a quota for dismissals was never the right destination.

After previously hailing the virtues of academy grads Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi, the two attack-minded youngsters remain rooted to the bench. The latter, who was linked with a big-money January move to Bayern Munich only to stay at the club’s insistence, played 330 minutes during the transfer window. The prodigious 18-year-old has since played 108 minutes, with a full 90 coming versus minnows Malmo.

Against United, down two goals with a place in the FA Cup quarterfinals on the line, Sarri made a trio of like-for-like changes. Willan on for Pedro, an ineffective Ross Barkley for Mateo Kovacic, and finally, the one that fueled the “F— Sarri-ball” chants, full-back Davide Zappacosta entered the fray for Cesar Azpilicueta. Playing uninspiring football while stunting the growth of talented homegrown players is very much a Chelsea calling card, so perhaps Sarri is just following trends.

The Zappacosta-for-Azpilicueta switch was the 25th change Sarri has made in domestic competitions between the hour and 75th-minute mark since a defeat at Tottenham on Nov. 24. Of those 25 changes, only two represent the introduction of a more attacking player:

Substitution Type Number of Times
Defender for defender 1
Midfielder for midfielder 11
Forward for forward 11
Midfielder for forward 1
Defender for midfielder 1

It’s easy to see why Chelsea supporters have turned on Sarri. It’s also easy to admire the 60-year-old Naples-born tactician, even amid a poor stretch of form. Acclaimed for a rise through the rungs of Italian football following a career in finance, Sarri’s unconventional emergence was an aberration. He’s the image of an individual with unconditional love for the game, a symbol of a rare outlier in an insular sport rife with partisanship, and a manager who values a long-term approach amid an era of knee-jerk short-termism.

Sarri could benefit, though, from a less obstinate approach, which has suited Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool’s title hopes well. The German has added a Plan B to complement his trademark Gegenpressing, as a 4-3-3 has been swapped occasionally for the 4-2-3-1 he employed at Borussia Dortmund. Liverpool can still play a high press, but Klopp’s pragmatic manners have shifted away from only a possession-based style, and it’s worked.

“If the team gives us the opportunity to do it we will still be there with the counter-press. But very often it is not possible,” Klopp told Sky Sports.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has also shown a willingness to adapt. An insistence to play from the back has been tinkered with, much due to shot-stopper Ederson’s pinpoint distribution skills, as has the role of inverted wing-backs, a style Guardiola favors, and one which requires the right player.

Amid calls for Sarri’s head, Chelsea assistant Gianfranco Zola has pledged the importance of patience, comparing his brethren’s tenure with Guardiola’s.

“Two years ago, you were probably asking the same questions to Pep Guardiola,” Zola told EuroSport. “You were asking if he’d keep playing from the back all the time. He said this was not in discussion and part of my game, even in the difficult moment. Maybe he adapted.”

Again, Chelsea – and director Marina Granovskaia – should have known what they were in for. They appointed an inflexible and ideological manager three weeks before the season kicked off, with a squad of players largely suited to his predecessor’s footballing ethos.

Sarri is not blameless, either. He has twice publicly maligned players and their motivations in the press, and he continues to make unimaginative like-for-like changes and refuses to include academy products revered by fans. Calling out a core of players who have previously quit on Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte was never going to work, nor was a resistance to changing an approach amid a dire spell that threatened Chelsea’s ambitions both in the league and domestic cups.

But, as they say, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The universally adored adage – famous for saluting persistence while addressing the pitfalls of giving up – does fail to acknowledge another viable option, though: if at first you don’t succeed, perhaps it’s time to alter course.

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