No one would have been surprised to learn that Maurizio Sarri had given his Chelsea players a dressing-down following their limp display in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat by Arsenal. It was unusual, though, that the Italian chose to read the riot act to his charges in public.
Sarri Pulled No Punches in North London
“I have to say that I’m extremely angry, very angry indeed”, the Blues boss said in his post-match press conference, speaking in his native tongue so he could get his words across more effectively.
“This defeat was due to our mentality more than anything else, our mental approach. We played against a team which, mentally, was far more determined than we were. And this is something I can’t accept. We had a similar issue in the league game at Tottenham. We spoke a great deal about that loss and our approach at the time, and I spoke to the players, and I thought we’d overcome this issue.
“But it appears we still seem to lack sufficient motivation, being mentally solid and determination. So I’m not happy, I’m really not happy. I’d prefer to be in the changing room, speaking to the players, to talk about why we lost from a tactical point of view.
“But the fact of the matter is it appears this group of players are extremely difficult to motivate. When you see this kind of game, when one team is quite obviously more determined than the other, you can’t really talk about tactics. From a technical point of view both teams are pretty much on the same level, but Arsenal were more determined. Tactics don’t come into it.”
It was an extraordinary episode.
It is certainly not unheard of for managers to publicly criticise their players’ performance, but it is rare to see doubts over an entire group’s character and mentality raised in this manner. For Sarri, this was a major gamble.
Chelsea were indeed poor at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. They could not deal with Arsenal’s intensity in the opening exchanges, as the hosts hassled and harried their opponents high up the pitch. Even when the game settled down after a frantic opening – by which time Alexandre Lacazette had given Unai Emery’s men a 1-0 lead – Chelsea proved unable to create clear-cut scoring chances.
Eden Hazard is a world-class attacker and has not been completely ineffective as a false nine, but it is patently not his best position. Chelsea missed a penalty-box presence at the Emirates – the imminent arrival of Gonzalo Higuain should at least address that, although the Argentinian has endured a poor half-season at Milan – while the absence of runners from midfield has made it relatively straightforward for opponents to defend against Sarri’s side. It has become commonplace to see Jorginho shackled by a man-marker, as Aaron Ramsey did to great effect on Saturday.
There have been calls for Sarri to change his ways and adapt more readily to the players at his disposal, but there is little chance of that happening. This is a man who has spent his entire top-flight career coaching a particular system and style; moreover, Chelsea knew exactly what they were getting when they chose the ex-Napoli manager as Antonio Conte’s replacement.
Following a 3-0 defeat by Arsenal in September 2016, Conte also used his press conference to criticise his players – albeit not quite to the extent of his successor on Saturday. The former Chelsea boss’ words had the desired effect: his team won their next 13 matches in the Premier League and ultimately won the title by a comfortable margin.
More significant than Conte’s criticism, though, was his decision to shift to a three-man backline during that loss in north London. Sarri, conversely, will stick with his 4-3-3 formation and possession-oriented style for Thursday’s crunch League Cup semi-final second leg against Tottenham. The Italian will have to hope that his strong words on Saturday do not backfire.
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