Haris Amin muses on Kepa Arrizabalaga’s insubordination and what it means for Maurizio Sarri’s future
When Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to obey Maurizio Sarri’s decision to substitute him in extra-time during Chelsea’s League Cup final defeat to Manchester City, one couldn’t help but think that such open treason would never happen to Sarri’s opposite number Pep Guardiola. Is Sarri yet another victim of player power at Chelsea, or did his unique style and background make the hostility surrounding him inevitable?
There have long been rumours of a ‘player power’ problem at Chelsea. In 2012, Gary Neville spoke of how the Chelsea players effectively orchestrated manager Andres Villas-Boas’ exit, after he omitted longtime players Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien from a Champions League tie. Jose Mourinho spoke of a ‘betrayal’ by his players after a defeat at Leicester City left Chelsea one point above the relegation zone in 2015. Most recently, Antonio Conte had a fractured relationship with two of Chelsea’s key voices in the dressing room, David Luiz and Willian, and towards the end of his tenure allegedly refused to speak to even his fellow coaches.
Kepa’s refusal to comply with his manager’s wishes seems to indicate that the Chelsea players lost faith in Sarri very early on in his tenure as manager. However, Sarri is not the first manager to be confronted by high-profile players acting out, and he will have known about the potentially problematic player culture at Chelsea before deciding to take the job. Across football, managers have to deal with difficult personalities, and stamp their authority upon their teams.
Upon taking the Barcelona job in 2008, 37-year-old Pep Guardiola immediately set about remaking the squad in his image. He sold club legend Ronaldinho, who had become overweight, and more preoccupied with partying than football. He set about making loyal allies in Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, who respected Guardiola from his playing days as club captain. He built on this loyal nucleus by promoting Sergio Busquets and Pedro from Barcelona’s third team. Guardiola is the subject of much hyperbole in the footballing media, but should be respected for the fact that, without any significant managerial experience, he quickly changed the culture of most political football clubs to suit his own style. Guardiola was able to do this because he had pedigree and status in Barcelona as a former club captain. He also had charisma. He endeared himself to the players, many of whom have since described as a close friend as well as a manager.
Sarri lacks the footballing pedigree Guardiola possesses. Other football managers have made careers without this background, but, at the highest level, their styles of management have tended to rely on their charismatic leadership as well as their meticulous preparations. One such example of this is Jose Mourinho. Working as a translator for Bobby Robson when Robson managed Barcelona, Mourinho was famous for adding his own footballing interpretations to Robson’s instructions. The ‘Special One’ was beset with confidence from the start of his career. Sarri is more superstitious than charismatic, famously refusing to let his Serie C players wear coloured boots.
Sarri is undoubtedly a hard-worker, a man who toiled for 24 years in Italian club football before reaching Serie A with Empoli. Chelsea hired him because of his success with Napoli, but a close analysis of his tenure there indicates how ill-suited he is to the Chelsea job. Sarri initially tried to implement a 4-3-1-2 formation at Napoli, but the side suffered a poor start to the season. It was a player-led confrontation that resulted in him adopting the 4-3-3 structure that the media and the fans now refer to (sometimes disparagingly) as ‘Sarri-Ball’. It is no surprise to hear Sarri remark he had never heard the term ‘Sarri-Ball’ before coming to Chelsea because, simply put, as a footballing style it is nothing revolutionary. At Napoli, Sarri played essentially the same formation as his predecessor Benitez, except for the subtle changes in moving Marek Hamsik into a deeper midfield role.
Sarri has resolutely stuck by his style of football in England. The reason he is not fit to be manager of Chelsea Football Club is not for footballing reasons, but because he is incapable of doing his primary job: managing, specifically managing superstars’ egos. It seems unlikely Chelsea will purge their squad of their most disruptive stars. Kepa is the most expensive keeper in the world, and Willian recently refused a move to Barcelona while expressing a desire to retire at the club. If Chelsea’s next manager is to have any chance of success, personality, reputation and charisma must come before footballing credentials.