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What is going on at Chelsea?

Maurizio Sarri claimed his side were ‘mentally weak’ following the loss to Arsenal on Saturday.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard applauds fans after the final whistle during the Premier League match at The Emirates Stadium.
Chelsea's Eden Hazard applauds fans after the final whistle during the Premier League match at The Emirates Stadium.
Image: Nick Potts

MAURIZIO SARRI CAME  to the Premier League with a great reputation.

Last season, his Napoli side pushed Juventus to the wire in Serie A, coming desperately close to winning the title with a highly attractive, exhilarating style of play.

In recent years, Chelsea, even at their best under Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, were criticised for their somewhat pragmatic approach.

In appointing Sarri, Roman Abramovich would surely have thought he was selecting the kind of coach who would get Chelsea playing in a manner even neutral fans can appreciate.

And to a point, Sarri succeeded with this aim of translating his Napoli template to the unforgiving cut and thrust of English football.

Consider an interview he gave to Corriere dello Sport last October recalling the Londoners’ enthralling 1-1 draw with Liverpool earlier in the season.

“There are times when a great show convinces you to put aside any regrets. Even if you suffer a goal in the last minute or the fifth minute of injury time. And that [the game at Stamford Bridge against Liverpool] had been an extraordinary show.

“Ten minutes before… Klopp looks at me and I don’t understand. The match is still in progress, I ask him: ‘Why are you smiling?’. And he says: ‘Are not you having fun?’ 

“I in return I say: ’Very much’. And he says: ‘Me too!’ And he’s losing. Then the Sturridge goal comes, but remembering that moment we hugged like two old friends.

“Here [in English football] it’s nice for this, I’m sure he would have done it even if Liverpool had not equalised. Premier League is the full taste of football, everything is different.”

In more recent times, however, Sarri has seemingly struggled to retain this positive outlook.

“I have to say that I’m extremely angry because this defeat was down to mentality,” Sarri told the press, after this weekend’s Arsenal defeat.

“They were far more determined than we were and I can’t accept that. It was similar to Spurs – I spoke to the players and I thought it was solved.

“I want to talk about tactics but it would appear this group of players are very difficult to motivate.

I think when you see this type of game where one team is more determined then you can’t talk about tactics. Their level of determination was much better than ours throughout the game.

He continued: “I don’t think a player at this level can be afraid to face up to their responsibilities. The best thing that can happen is that the players and I speak very openly.

“I am the person responsible for the players and it’s important for them to have the right attitude. If they can’t achieve that then maybe they shouldn’t be playing at this level.”

Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League - Emirates Stadium Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri has been unimpressed with his players' attitude of late. Source: Chris Radburn

There were no obvious signs of this disharmony earlier in the season. Chelsea began the campaign promisingly and it was only on 24 November against Spurs when they finally suffered their first Premier League defeat.

Now, however, the situation suddenly seems perilous.

Sarri’s comments suggest exasperation with and an inability to relate to the beleaguered players at his disposal.

So far, though, their worrying predicament is by no means catastrophic.

Chelsea are fourth and the season would surely be considered a relative success should they finish there and secure a coveted Champions League spot. Yet the game with the Gunners was crucial in this regard. A win would have seen them open up a nine-point gap on Unai Emery’s side. Instead they are now just three points behind the Londoners and Manchester United. They have also fallen four points behind Spurs, after the latter’s defeat of Fulham on Sunday.

So for Sarri to essentially suggest his players weren’t up for Saturday’s clash with their London rivals indicates there are major problems within the club.

Cynics would be forgiven for suspecting this situation represents déjà vu.

Many of the key players from the Jose Mourinho era remain at the club. In May 2015, under the Portuguese coach, they impressively won the Premier League title with three games to spare. But the following December, after losing nine of their opening 16 matches, the Special One was ruthlessly shown the exit door.

A few months later, Antonio Conte was appointed as Mourinho’s permanent successor. Despite having a similar group of players to work with in addition to a couple of important new recruits, they looked instantaneously rejuvenated following the Italian’s arrival. His debut season couldn’t have gone much better — they equalled Arsenal’s 2002 record for most consecutive league wins in a single campaign and ultimately claimed the 2016-17 title convincingly.

The following season, however, was a different story. After Conte had signed a contract extension in the summer, they badly under-performed, finishing fifth and missing out on a Champions League place, with the former Juventus midfielder losing his job as a result.

So two esteemed coaches, Mourinho and Conte, had clearly failed to get the best out of Chelsea’s perennially unpredictable players at various points.

It would be premature to suggest the exact same situation is occurring under Sarri, but the current signs are ominous.

One important difference is the style of football. Chelsea have gone from a somewhat defensive counter-attacking team under Mourinho and Conte to one that dominates the ball and attempts to seize the initiative.

Even in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, they had 64% possession. In the recent 1-0 League Cup loss to Spurs, they had 58% of the ball.

Yet a recurring theme of late is the Londoners’ lack of cutting edge. They lack a truly top-class out-and-out striker. Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata (who is reportedly close to joining Atletico Madrid) have struggled to convince as the answer to their attacking problems. Eden Hazard has, at times, operated as a false nine, but the results have similarly been mixed.

The Belgian international is arguably the best player in the Premier League when in top form, and he was highly complimentary after being asked about Sarri earlier in the season.

I like to have the ball. Not in my own half, but in the last 30 metres,” he told Chelsea TV. “I like this type of game, it’s completely different from Antonio Conte or [Jose] Mourinho before. Like I say, we have more of the ball so for me it’s not bad.”

But after complaining about the tactics from the previous two bosses, the performance at Arsenal on Saturday gave the impression that the Chelsea players have now become fed up with the opposite approach too.

The 28-year-old Belgian star clearly has the potential to thrive at the highest level. He was named PFA Players’ Player of the Year at the end of the 2014-15 season, and was named runner-up for the same prize in both 2013-14 and 2016-17.

Hazard looked like a serious candidate for Player of the Season early on in the current campaign as well. In his first 12 games this season in all competitions, he scored 10 goals. Since then, however, in 22 matches, the rumoured Real Madrid target has found the net just four times.

The star attacker’s woes are a significant example of the serious problems at Chelsea currently. He is one of a number of players that Sarri is simply failing to get the best out of, though whether the manager should be held primarily responsible for this issue is debatable.

The next couple of days are likely to be key in determining how the Blues’ overall season pans out.

Two major developments could quell talk of another imminent Mourinho-esque collapse. Beating Tottenham on Thursday and securing a spot in the League Cup final is the kind of big, morale-boosting victory that has the potential to reinvigorate their stuttering campaign.

Furthermore, the London club are reportedly close to signing Argentina international Gonzalo Higuain. At 31, the player is perhaps a short-term fix, although it is still less than three years since Juventus paid a club record €90 million for his services. If the out-of-favour star can show anywhere near the level of form he demonstrated to earn that big-money move, then he will certainly make a substantial difference to the embattled Premier League club.

For now though, Sarri must wait patiently for Higuain’s anticipated arrival and hope the disconcerting status quo at the club represents a blip rather than the kind of prolonged decline that has become a recurring feature of recent seasons.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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