Only about a quarter of the 2018-19 English Premier League season remains, yet Chelsea finds itself in sixth place in what can only be seen as a disappointing campaign. While there is still enough time to pass both Arsenal and Manchester United and advance to fourth place (and the final Champions League berth}, there are some troubling signs that their first-year manager, Maurizio Sarri, has lost control of the dressing room and the confidence of the players.
Current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has come to Sarri’s defense by saying that the first year with a new system is to be considered a rebuilding year, Chelsea’s recent run of form suggests that the team is heading downward rather than in the right direction with the manager to be sacked. Among the signs that the former Napoli manager might be on his way out follow:
Lack of Offense: In their past five matches, the Blues have conceded 13 goals while scoring a mere seven. But these numbers contain an outlier against last-place Huddersfield, when Chelsea scored five of their seven goals. In fact, their EPL tally of 45 goals puts them last among the top six EPL teams. Using Eden Hazard as a false number nine has proven largely ineffective, as he is a natural winger. Witness the fact that his offensive production has declined, with no one on the team able to pick up the slack. Alvaro Morata has been shipped off on loan to Atletico Madrid, Olivier Giroud has been used sparingly and newly-acquired striker Gonzalo Higuain seems woefully out of shape and frankly past his prime.
Players Performing Out of Their Natural Positions: Much like Hazard playing out of position, French international N’Golo Kante has been moved from a deep midfielder to a more offensive midfield position based upon Sarri’s determination that Kante lacks the speed to get upfield quickly enough to provide proper support to the forwards. The problem with that logic is that every other team Kante has been associated with has benefited from his deeper midfield role including Chelsea, since his arrival from Leicester City in 2016. Always the quiet warrior, Kante has soldiered on for his team, but it is crystal clear that he is not suited to his new position under Sarri-ball. The EPL is far from a pick-up league, and players need to be in a position where they have thrived.
Failure to Adapt his System When Necessary: Manager Sarri has more than once blamed his players for their underperforming run of form, and certainly the field players are a part of the problem. But Sarri himself rarely accepts any blame and is quick to defend his system as needing more time. But after their recent FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge to a Manchester United team that lacked key players Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, the Chelsea fans in attendance began to chant some rather unsavory “cheers” towards their manager. While Sarri pointed out afterwards that his game plan is geared for a win rather than to entertain the fans, the results speak for themselves. And at 60 years of age, Maurizio Sarri has yet to win any silverware-anywhere, with his system.
Sticking With His Players For Too Long: When Sarri signed with Chelsea, he was quick to bring with him Napoli midfielder and playmaker Jorginho. Yet after 25 EPL matches, Jorginho has yet to be credited with an assist and has netted a lone goal. For a player who offers nothing on the defensive side of the ball, one would think that he’d have been replaced at this stage of the campaign. Yet the only quality player that Chelsea rostered this season for that slot, Cesc Fabregas, was sold to Monaco during the winter break. While the transfer occurred at the players’ request, it was rumored that his lack of playing time was pivotal in Fabregas’ transfer request. It is thought that much of the lack of offensive prowess that Chelsea is experiencing is originating from this key position.
Lack of Dialogue With Abramovich: Sarri has said that since Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has not spoken to him recently, the oligarch is willing to give him more time to see his system succeed. While Abramovich as kept a low profile of late, this is due in no small part to his British visa being revoked. While he now works largely through team Director Marina Granovskaia and Chairman Bruce Buck, one should not expect the owner to display any more patience this season than he has in the past. Abramovich didn’t wait to terminate Jose Mourinho when he felt it necessary, and there’s no reason to believe his patience for Sarri hasn’t run its course as well.
Chelsea’s next group of matches may well determine Sarri’s fate. They play their home match against Europa League minnow Malmo FF on Thursday, the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City on Sunday at Wembley, and an EPL game at home against Tottenham next Wednesday. Should Chelsea come up short in any of those matches, no one would be surprised if Maurizio Sarri finds himself returning to Italy before the end of the season, with current manager and former Chelsea forward Gianfranco Zola appointed as interim manager.