Maurizio Sarri, Antonio Conte: Two sides of the Chelsea coin?
Background photo: Inkiboo, CC BY 2.0
Just when you think the Premier League is a flat track for bullies, the small clubs fight back. In matchday 24's midweek fixtures, the top six produced a meagre eight points from a possible 18. Arsenal and Tottenham won their games although both left it late against Cardiff and Watford respectively. League leaders Liverpool leveraged a draw against Leicester City. Manchester United scrambled to do the same in a less alliterative fashion in added time against Burnley. All four played at home. Holders Manchester City lost at Newcastle but the most glaring defeat was Chelsea's on the South Coast.
Maurizio Sarri's squad fell 4-0. Unsurprisingly, embarrassing appears often in media reports on the match. As it should. The Italian manager faces a crisis.
His team took the pitch knowing Arsenal had drawn level on points the day before. Victory would restore a three-point cushion on fourth place, keep them close to Tottenham and push United off the pace after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side finally dropped points. Instead, Spurs can now focus on catching City without looking over their shoulder while the Blues find themselves in fifth on fewer goals scored than the Gunners and a nervous two points above United.
Already, questions arise concerning new striker Gonzalo Higuain who was subbed off on 65 minutes. In two matches with his new club, he is yet to score. More troubling is he declined the opportunity to take a penalty in the FA Cup versus Sheffield Wednesday, ceding the responsibility to Willian. The Argentine has every reason to be confident in his ability to strike from the run of play but turning the Brazilian down does more psychological damage than good. Chelsea acquired Higuain because they lacked an authoritative striker. Any deference on his part suggests they still do.
Irrespective of Higuain's mindset, shipping four at the other end has nothing to do with him. Despite Sarri's reputation as a guns-blazing tactician, Chelsea's strength this campaign has been the rearguard. They've been so good in their own box that despite the lopsided score, they remain the Premier League's third-staunchest defence. If the boss can no longer rely on his defenders while he seeks attacking solutions, the season is lost.
In fact, it's unlikely he will last until the summer if his project continues to fall apart. Chelsea isn't a club to display the patience Manchester City showed Pep Guardiola when his first campaign went south. Further, the chain-smoking former financier lacks the pedigree that would warrant any.
When Roman Abramovich dithered with Aurelio de Laurentiis throughout the summer before paying through the nose to land the positive-minded boss he has desired for so many years, the contrast between the new man and his predecessor dominated reaction to his signing. That Sarri and Antonio Conte are both Italian might be the only trait they share. One prefers to soak up pressure before hitting on the counter. The other insists on holding possession and dictating the pace. One is tall, the other short. One maintains his fitness but wears a tailored suit for matches in which he tends to run about like a madman. The other has a paunch, a two-pack-a-day habit, wears tracksuits but limits his physical activity to frustrated shouts, hand gestures, and fumbling around his pocketless athletic wear in search of a fag to calm his nerves.
Unfortunately for Sarri, their pattern of debut season results is just as diametrically opposed.
Conte began his shooting-star Premier League career at sixes and sevens. He tried to play an English four-at-the-back system rather than the three-man backline he employed to wonderful effect at Juventus and with the Italian national team. Only in the thirteenth game did he resort to familiar methods and enjoy lasting success. The Blues began to dominate and never looked back.
Sarri arrived at Heathrow from Napoli with Jorginho in his carry-on luggage. The two set about recreating the Napoli set-up at Stamford Bridge from the off, Gli Azzurri Inglese if you will. Their strategy was an immediate success. Whereas Conte struggled in his first dozen games, Sarri went unbeaten. Conte's turnaround was sparked by a defeat to Arsenal. Sarri's decline began with a defeat to another North London rival, Tottenham. Whereas Conte never looked back, Sarri can't seem to get back.
The Blues became inconsistent, rebounding with a 2-0 win over struggling Fulham then falling to Wolves before treating the reigning champions, Manchester City, like they were the Cottagers. Next, they squeaked past Brighton at the AmEx but couldn't defend the Bridge against Leicester. Three games later, Southampton played them to a goalless draw in London. Mixed in were uninspiring results in the Europa League, defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates and a fightback against Tottenham to sneak into the EFL Cup final, a victory on penalties that might not have been possible had Spurs been able to field Son Heung-min, away on international duty, Harry Kane and Dele Alli, both injured.
Including the loss to Tottenham that began their landslide, Chelsea's record stands at six wins, one draw and five defeats in their last dozen Premier League games. Sarri is Antonio Conte trapped on the wrong side of the mirror while his reflection runs free, laughing and wreaking havoc on his ambitions
For Roman Abramovich, who is struggling to get back to Stamford Bridge himself thanks to visa issues, Sarri is the other side of the coin. Defensive-minded managers Jose Mourinho and Conte delivered four of his five Premier League titles, the other coming from middle-of-the-road tactician Carlo Ancelotti. Neither played the attractive style he desired. Sarri does but is tumbling down the table like an old tech-stock. The Russian goes through managers every year or two, flipping the coin hoping it turns up his dream squad. Instead, it's heads you win, tails I lose.