Will Sarriball fall victim to Chelsea’s ideological rigidity?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 7, 2019
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Sarriball only appears in flashes. When Chelsea thread their way out of defence, ricocheting passes between centre-halves, full-backs and goalkeeper, and then spring forward vertically through an opponent’s press, heads nod in recognition. But then it vanishes and the same faces turn blank.

It’s only January and Maurizio Sarri has been a Premier League coach for just five months, but there’s little evidence yet of his great philosophy taking seed. Last Wednesday, Southampton set up the baracades at Stamford Bridge and took home a useful and unlikely point. The immediate concern was the ground lost to Arsenal and Tottenham, but the broader worry was how familiar it all looked. It was Chelsea at their gear-grinding worst and they were booed off at the end.

Earlier that day there had been better news. Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund’s nimble, fleet-footed American was signed for next season and, from August, a forward line which has been threatening to turn stale will have some overdue life. Sarri was asked for his reaction to the signing and he didn’t sound like someone who was about to take possession of one of the hottest properties in European football. Perhaps his mind was elsewhere, on the third round of the FA Cup or the increasingly important two-legged tie with Tottenham which begins tomorrow night, but we’re used to head-coaches talking up these moments. Had Pulisic fallen into the hands of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola, one imagines a more effusive reaction, full of long-term prophecies about what “Christian” will bring and what he might be able to achieve.

None of that from Sarri. The media distrusts Chelsea’s recruiting procedure, more so than ever following Michael Emenalo’s departure, and the Italian was drawn on the topic. He’d been asked about Pulisic about a month ago, he said, implying that he’d given some vague consent, and he was broadly happy that the American is now inbound.

Chelsea’s way of doing things is so easy to criticise that it’s important to remember that, at times, it has been one of the club’s great strengths. The loan network, which is regularly flogged for scattering dozens of aspiring players all across Europe, was once a key tool in the battle against the original form of Financial Fair Play. Talent has slipped away from time-to-time, with some very notable examples, but the loan fees collected and the sales negotiated have been valuable to an organisation with a comparatively modest match-day income and commercial revenue streams which are less than half those earned by Manchester United.

Chelsea’s success is new and their status as a force in the game is also a recent development, meaning that they don’t have the privilege of monetising embedded loyalties in every corner of the world. Viewed from that perspective, their prospecting is actually highly original. It may not always be that efficient and, aesthetically, it does manifest as something unpleasantly modern, but with plans for a new stadium once again becoming entangled in red tape and London offering scarce opportunities for infrastructural growth, the roads towards self-sufficiency are few and far between.

The other great issue, the one which is revisited time and again, is the disconnect between the technical area and the technical department. Chelsea’s head-coaches don’t typically drive recruitment and now, with Emenalo gone and Marina Granovskaia assumed to be responsible for the club’s transfer dealings, the synapse between the boardroom and the training-pitch has disappeared.

In principle, it’s not unreasonable. The notion of managers as autonomous decision-makers has been outdated for decades and, as football’s wealth and image sensitivity has increased, the need for a sporting director has grown. The role provides expertise, of course, but also the protection of a club’s long-term vision. That’s particularly true at Chelsea. Roman Abramovich’s willingness to jettison his head-coaches and tendency to bounce between different philosophical approaches means that, without some transfer continuity, his first-team would otherwise become a perpetual hodgepodge of different needs and whims.

So that too isn’t the evil it’s often assumed to be. In the present day, however, perhaps the balance is askew. In the black and white sense, Chelsea’s record in the market over recent seasons has been  questionable – both in the calibre of the players signed and in the amounts paid for them. Central to Antonio Conte’s grievance, of course, was the failure to strengthen the side which won the Premier League in 2017. That saga rumbles on, with culpability on both sides, but the issue at its heart – this separation of powers – has never seemed quite so problematic.

Conte is a headstrong character and it became clear early in his final year that he wasn’t averse to making trouble, but the poverty of those reinforcements strengthened his argument. Alvaro Morata’s move has been an unfortunate failure, but the signings of Davide Zappacosta, Emerson Palmieri and Danny Drinkwater have all had minimal effects on the first-team. Not only because they’ve failed to win starting positions, but because they’ve never been viable alternatives; none of those signings really deepened the culture of competition. The exception was Antonio Rudiger, who is an excellent player and remains part of Sarri’s thinking, but Conte certainly had a grievance and the recruiting strategy’s flaws were never more evident.

Pulisic has made them relevant again. Not because he isn’t a fine player or because his acquisition won’t give the club an enormous advantage in the USA. Quite the reverse. Pulisic is not only an exhilarating footballer, but also potentially a once-of-its-kind commodity and a flag for the club to plant in North America. Nevertheless, the sub-text of the deal is disconcerting from a technical perspective, because Sarri was obviously informed of the transfer as a courtesy and his blessing of it appears to have been incidental.

That really doesn’t really tally with his coaching style. While it would be unrealistic to expect his to be the loudest voice in these decisions – there are few clubs offering that privilege now – it’s strange that someone with such specific ideas for how the game should be played isn’t a greater part of the process, of determining whether Pulisic is the right good player, rather than just a broadly desirable one. Sarri’s football is precise and technical, it requires specific components in specialised positions, and so that he is not directly instructing its future is quite bizarre.

It also represents the great contradiction at the heart of Abramovich’s Chelsea. Since he bought control of the club, he has aspired towards a particular house style. He lusted after the aesthetics of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and, more recently, has presumably admired the same qualities in Manchester City and noted the growing identity of Jurgen Klopp’s incendiary Liverpool. So he wants his club’s playing personality to flower, yet is unwilling to prepare the earth in a way which would allow that to happen. This desire for deeper identity may have taken him to the door of one of the game’s most celebrated ideologues, but figures like Sarri need the right conditions to succeed. That needn’t take the form of vast budgets and zero accountability, but narrowing the paremeters of someone appointed for their supposed vision makes no sort of sense.

While Abramovich may have paid close attention to Guardiola’s progress in England, evidently he hasn’t to the circumstances which preceded his arrival. Manchester City prepared themselves to be managed by the Catalan. Their executive structure is loaded with former Barcelona employees who share Guardiola’s vision of the game, who trust his judgement implicitly and, before and to this day, have led the task of turning the club into one he would want and be able to manage. The sprawling Etihad campus, which has been growing across Eastland over the last decade, is another symbol of that preparation. It makes broad footballing sense, of course, but also mimics a model which Guardiola has had great success with in the past.

By contrast, Chelsea’s approach with Sarri appears to be typically single-faceted. In time, concessions might be made, but for now he exists on an island, without the support of a compatible sporting director and with the reinforcement of players whose suitability is determined by those who – respectfully – probably aren’t best placed to make that judgement.

Sarri is often compared to Arrigo Sacchi. Not only because of their shared belief in attacking football’s primacy, but because of their roots. Neither played professional football, and while Sarri famously migrated from the financial world, Sacchi was a former shoe salesman. There’s merit to the comparison and, as a result, validity to remembering that the latter always prioritised the value of the system over that of the individual players. Famously, that extended to him claiming that his Milan team would have reached their late 1980s peak without Marco van Basten or Ruud Gullit. In his mind, the system ruled.

Read in one way, that offers an endorsement of the system Sarri is now operating within; if the players don’t matter, it should be fine for him to work with whatever he’s given. Viewed from another perspective, though, that looks disingenuous. Tactical cohesion depends on understanding and personality and while Sarri, like Sacchi, may not be overly-concerned with the minutiae of technical profiles, he would surely have a vested interest in a player’s character. For someone who coaches in the way that he does, a capacity for learning and willingness to take instruction are presumably pre-requisites in his players.

Pulisic has not had a good season at Borussia Dortmund. His campaign has been blighted by injury, but he has also been a victim of Lucien Favre’s arrival at the club, in the process also becoming the main casualty of Jadon Sancho’s emergence. What to read into that? Favre too favours an attacking, ball-playing style which bears comparison to Sarri’s installation at Stamford Bridge, and while clearly very gifted, Sancho is a novice whose quick rise doesn’t necessarily flatter Pulisic. Such concerns could be proven baseless in time, of course, but they’re still miniature red flags, prompting the question of whether Chelsea’s due diligence is really thorough enough. For nearly £60m you’d hope so, but the deal does seem to have been conducted without the input of the one man who will be key to its success.

Perhaps Pulisic will persevere anyway. Superficially there’s much to admire and voicing these concerns now, when they seem specific to him, is rather unfair. But this is Chelsea and he would hardly be the first theoretically excellent player to by stymied by philosophical disenfranchisement. Mohamed Salah, Juan Cuadrado and Kevin De Bruyne all continue to provide testament to the inefficiencies which can occur when, for whatever reason, the chemistry isn’t quite right.

Maybe Sarri himself will also be an exception to this local rule; maybe he will have a long and happy tenure, during which he and his club will slowly become one. But, for now, it’s hard not to watch Chelsea and think otherwise. To watch their stuttering moves, their over-reliance on Eden Hazard and their missing components in midfield. To notice the fees being spent, the positions which remain unfilled and the squad’s jumbled periphery. It’s only natural to see those issues repeating and to assume that this latest pursuit of a defining ideology is destined again to be limited by the club’s unwillingness to be altered.

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Chelsea Maurizio Sarri Roman Abramovich
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