Why Maurizio Sarri's first year at Chelsea is a massive success
Background image: I, Andrew, CC BY-SA 3.0
With another Premier League season completed, the time has come for reflection. For Chelsea, the main focus will be on Maurizio Sarri.
The Italian arrived at Stamford Bridge to much fanfare last summer. After nearly leading Napoli to the Serie A title with an exciting, forward-thinking brand, he was expected to take the Premier League by storm. That happened in the early-goings.
Chelsea played great football, were sitting atop the table, Sarri was well liked. The intervening months have not been kind, though. Like Game of Thrones, winter came for him and his players. Sarri’s standing at the club has taken a nosedive with player protests, fan disapproval and his recent criticism of the powers-that-be. All have contributed to his eroding status.
Sarri is not secure and the belief is that his stay in England will be a short one. Should that be the case, his first season in the Premier League will be sold as a failure. That could not be further from the truth. In reality, the Italian has done a great job at Chelsea.
The most significant evidence is the Premier League table. Sarri guided Chelsea to a third-place finish. Two points and two positions better off than last term. They also won the same amount of games, finished with the same goal difference but lost two fewer matches. Even more importantly, they’re back in the Champions League after a one-year absence.
The added bonus is that by finishing third, they do not face a tricky qualifying game. They will be heading straight to the group stages for the 2019/20 Champions League tournament. When the campaign started the main aim would have been to get back into European football's premier competition. Sarri achieved that with a game to spare.
"They're in the top four and guaranteed Champions League football."
"This man is not lacking in passion for the job."
@JimWhite says Chelsea fans need to get behind Maurizio Sarri.
What do you think? 🤔 https://t.co/SmSiI9Svx5
The season may have offered up more at the beginning, but finishing third is a great achievement nonetheless. The only two teams better than Chelsea are Liverpool and Manchester City. The former has recorded the most points by any team finishing second in Premier League history. City is amongst the greatest teams the country has ever seen. Both have taken at least three years to get to that stage. It’s no embarrassment to finish behind them. In fact, making sure you're the next best is an achievement in itself.
Then there’s his performance in the cup competitions. By the end of this term, Chelsea will have been to the finals of the Europa League and the League Cup. It was Manchester City who stopped them winning the latter. That’s a City side who finished the campaign as champions while remaining on course for a domestic treble. Yet, even they needed penalties after Chelsea went toe-to-toe with them throughout an intriguing final.
Their appearance in the final itself was a considerable success given they had to beat Liverpool away from home, before overturning Tottenham in the semi-finals. Clashes against Derby County and Bournemouth were no cakewalks either. Their run to the final wasn’t as easy as the one City enjoyed, that’s for sure.
Their path to the Europa League showpiece in Baku was not as tricky, but still impressive nonetheless. They have topped their group, gone unbeaten and had Olivier Giroud as the competition's top goalscorer. A final against Arsenal is a match they can win.
By the season's end, Sarri may have delivered everything expected of him. He’ll have got Chelsea back into the top four and took them to two finals with a great chance at winning his first career trophy. The only competition they have disappointed in is the FA Cup, and even then Manchester United knocked them out in the fifth round. That was a Red Devils side who was feeling revitalised under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, by the way...
If those three things don’t qualify as a success, then his work with Chelsea’s youngsters certainly does. Factor out John Terry and Sarri has given more minutes to Chelsea academy players this season than any other manager in the Roman Abramovich era.
The constant talk around Stamford Bridge is about the strength of their youth and the need for them to be integrated into the first-team. Sarri has shown a willingness to do that. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi are both first-team regulars nowadays.
At first, there was an obvious hesitancy from Sarri to throw in the kids, but that was down to the need to develop their game into one that falls in line with their manager's ideologies. When they showed that, the Italian integrated them, gradually increasing their playing time. Ask Chelsea fans, and they will tell you that both have come on leaps and bounds under his tutelage.
Chelsea has long-needed a manager who will use their youth prospects. With their transfer ban being upheld, more talented prospects could follow suit.
Indeed, looking at the situation as a whole there are far more reasons to label his first year at Chelsea as a success rather than failure. The case with the youngsters, coupled with securing Champions League football and reaching two cup finals mean it can’t be seen as anything else. Plenty of sides will wish they had Chelsea’s term, that’s for sure.
The Italian has handled certain situations poorly, and yes, there are flaws to be ironed out, but Chelsea has enjoyed a far better first year under his leadership than most would have you believe...