Chelsea fans don’t often turn on their manager. They don’t usually have time. But there, distinct in the cool February air, just six days before they play in a cup final, it was: “Fuck Sarriball! Fuck Sarriball! Fuck Sarriball!” Add in the booing at the final whistle and the chants for Callum Hudson-Odoi throughout the second half and it’s fair to say the Matthew Harding Stand has made its mind up about Maurizio Sarri.
Fans are not always right, of course, as a notorious Old Trafford bedsheet of the late eighties makes clear, and boards must make their own decisions, but this nonetheless felt a decisive moment. Stamford Bridge turned on André Villas-Boas and it didn’t like Rafa Benítez from the start, but outright revolt against a manager is unusual.
And that is particularly significant because of the circumstances. Sarri, it was widely accepted, would take time to impose his methods. It might take two years – or four windows, as the jargon of the transfer-obsessed Premier League has it in these final weeks of its decadence before the probable Brexit-ignited collapse. Time means longer than the seven months Sarri has had the job but a project of that nature requires faith – and that seems in increasingly short supply.
If you’re going to build a club on a philosophy, you have to be sure of its merits. And you have fully to commit. Whatever questions there may be about Sarri and his methods, Chelsea have not done that. When Manchester City decided to found their guardiolista republic, they appointed Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, two people Pep Guardiola knew and trusted and had worked with before, to be CEO and director of football. They prepared the ground, constructed a new training base, signed players to fit the Guardiola model. Chelsea’s planning for sarrismo was so half-baked they hadn’t even got round to getting rid of Antonio Conte, his predecessor, by the time pre-season training started.
Chelsea’s squad is the equivalent of a cut-n-shut car: parts of entirely different vehicles welded together with little thought for the roadworthiness of the whole. Perhaps Jorginho would have struggled in the Premier League anyway but fielding him in such a hodge-podge of a midfield is no way to judge, his every flaw highlighted by the fact that his inclusion means N’Golo Kanté, arguably Chelsea’s best player over the past two seasons, being forced into a position in which he is clearly uncomfortable.
Kanté has scored three goals this season, making it his most productive ever in front of goal. Jorginho has one, a penalty.
Mateo Kovacic, in his ninth season as a professional, has only ever managed 12 league goals, the last one coming 25 months ago. It’s slightly too simplistic to say that the biggest difference between Chelsea and United on Monday was goals from midfield, but only slightly – in the past three weeks Paul Pogba has scored as many goals as Chelsea’s entire midfield has from open play all season.
But perhaps what has been most galling to Chelsea fans is the sense of familiarity. It would be much easier to accept that there is a future being built towards if youth were being given its head. Hudson-Odoi may or may not be worth the £40m Bayern Munich have reportedly offered for him, but it’s hard to understand why Sarri is so reluctant to risk him, even at 2-0 down with half an hour to go.
What, then, was there to lose? Did he really think Willian, diligent as he is, was going to transform the game?
It’s all very well for Sarri to say that what he is witnessing is not Sarri-ball but it’s also largely irrelevant: nobody thinks that this is what he is aiming at. Nor, realistically, can anybody think he has been given the ideal resources with which or the ideal circumstances in which to try to impose his football. But it is, surely, possible to adapt without compromising the principles that shape the goal to which he is aiming.
There is a template and it seems it can never change. This was the 14th time Willian has come on for Pedro or been taken off for Pedro this season. It was the 20th time one of Ross Barkley and Kovacic has replaced the other. It is all very familiar and adds to the sense of Chelsea as a deeply predictable side. They had twice as much possession as United on Monday and yet managed just two shots on target – a Willian free-kick and Pedro’s follow-up after Sergio Romero had saved.
There was a lot of sideways passing and a lot of waiting for Eden Hazard to do something brilliant. His fine form of the autumn carried Chelsea but nobody can be expected to drag a side single-handedly through a season. This sterility, the tepid patience, may not be Sarriball, but it is the image of it that has been left on English football and time, it increasingly feels, is running out for that to change.