Some good news for Chelsea. Not just a win in a league cup semi-final, but a positive reaction to their head-coach’s challenge. Had he been in charge of another club, Maurizio Sarri’s outburst following the defeat at Arsenal would have been newsworthy, but at Stamford Bridge those kind of moments always cause a shiver of foreboding.
It’s an urban myth of sorts, but certainly has a basis in fact. The come-and-go nature of managerial life under Roman Abramovich probably has skewed the ratios of power. Players who have had their egos bruised and attitudes questioned have, in the past, reacted poorly, safe in the knowledge that managers will always be held accountable for poor form. It’s very hard to define something like that, of course, but it’s an easy situation to imagine.
Which is why Thursday night was important. In truth, Sarri may have been clumsy with his remarks at the weekend, he was clearly very angry, but what matters now is that his players seem to have responded earnestly. This wasn’t just a pride and pashion performance, either, because Chelsea played with great focus for long parts of the game and, actually, they were closer to Sarri’s ideals than they have been in many, many weeks. No, it wasn’t quite like watching Napoli at their most fluid, but it was certainly an improvement upon what they produced against Arsenal, Leicester, Newcastle and – most importantly – both previous fixtures against Spurs. It was less lateral and much more aggressive.
There was plenty of individual improvement too: Jorginho was more productive, Hazard was penetrative, and Emerson Palmieri – hitherto a redundant figure at the club – was actually excellent.
Of course, it’s right to contextualise the game with the recognition that this was a badly under-strength Tottenham, but Chelsea could only beat what was in front of them. Moreover, you suspect that under previous managers who had trodden this path – Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte – that they would have found a way to lose. To not re-focus and re-absorb tactical instruction, but to pout and sulk, in that hope that Abramovich might swing his axe and appoint a conciliatory hair-ruffler.
So definitely a step forward. It may not be any indication of long-term success, but at least Sarri has found an effective way of communicating with his players and that they, to their credit, remain receptive to his ideas. In time, the past few days may well be viewed as a pivotal moment within this new mini-era – a pivotal moment which will still have to be supported by some major change above Sarri’s paygrade, but a significant few days nonetheless.