It only feels like yesterday that we were ushering in the arrival of Chelsea’s newest Italian. Maurizio Sarri’s first season in the hot-seat at Stamford Bridge has ushered in a unique divide within the fanbase, that has grown ever more toxic in recent weeks.
After starting so promisingly, Chelsea’s post-Christmas Blues have reared their ugly heads for the second season running, leaving Sarri’s side with a scrap to secure Champions League qualification.
Unlike Antonio Conte though, Sarri has the chance the secure a spot back in Europe’s elite on two fronts. With Chelsea’s continued involvement in the Europa League, and a favourable draw to go with it, the west London club’s great record with winning continental silverware has a chance to continue come the end of May in Baku.
With that being said, its now crunch time for Sarri! The knives are out and the wolves are circling over the 60-year-old’s future in SW6.
But I’m feeling kind, so here are 5 tips for you Maurizio that could change your fortunes and unite the fanbase for a glorious end to a challenging nine months.
5. Play Hudson-Odoi!
Maurizio Sarri must’ve hoped the International Break would usher in a small period of silence after another dismal defeat at Goodison Park. Instead, Gareth Southgate only helped to fuel further frustrations from Chelsea fans as he not only called up, but gifted two caps to Chelsea’s standout youth product, Callum Hudson-Odoi.
In both the wins against the Czech Republic and Montenegro, Hudson-Odoi wasted no time showcasing his talents on the international stage. Southgate’s overwhelmingly complimentary words towards the young winger prompted many to question why Hudson-Odoi hasn’t been given more minutes at Stamford Bridge this season; which falls squarely at the feet of Sarri.
The dynamic winger has had to feed off scraps this season, making up the majority of his minutes in the Europa League, where he has found the net 4 times in 8 appearances. Hudson-Odoi provides Chelsea with a missing element, and that’s unpredictability.
The admirably strong stance the club showed in the face of interest from Bayern Munich in January seems almost farcical now, given the fact he’s found himself at times further away from first-team action. The positive is that Hudson-Odoi has now found himself as one of Sarri’s first subs in both the Wolves and Everton games in an attempt to change the game. Why not try starting him? And if he takes that chance, he should keep that place.
Chelsea can’t afford to let a remarkable talent like Hudson-Odoi leave so meekly after barely getting a sniff of a chance at staking a claim in his boyhood club’s starting eleven.
4. More of a Meritocracy
Leading on from point No.5, Sarri’s team selections simply have to improve if the Blues hope to end the season on a high in any capacity. My last articlefor the Echo touched on this in depth, but to put in plainly – players must earn their places.
It has felt for a long time now that players have kept their places just on name-value or previous achievements, rather than their present form. No player encapsulates this frustration more than Marcus Alonso. The Spanish left-back started the season off wonderfully well, bombing forward and providing the same goal-threat he had under Antonio Conte despite switching to a back four.
However, since his new contract before Christmas, Alonso’s form seemed to plummet and has struggled to recover. It took till late January for Emerson to finally be handed a first league start and only in recent weeks did the former-Roma man keep his place in multiple games. Despite Emerson’s encouraging displays, offering more athleticism and overlapping runs compared to his competition, Alonso was back starting at Goodison off the back of a good display against Dynamo Kiev.
Alonso’s one good display in what was an already considered a bit of a dead-rubber before kick-off seemed to eliminate months of poor form that had preceded it. It cost Sarri dearly as Alonso would go on to perform poorly and most notably, give away an unforgivable penalty that put the game beyond Chelsea.
If a fringe player in midweek plays well, and is outperforming his competition in the same position, he should be heavily considered for a starting place come the weekend in the League. The likes of Pedro, Willian, Barkley, Kovačić, Jorginho, Rüdiger and Luiz have mostly kept their places, naturally leading to less competition and stagnancy. The more competition for places, the better.
3. Stop Liverpool
Ok, indulge me a more tribal one.
Though I can’t be the only one who sees the fixture on the 14th April as gigantic given the position Jurgen Klopp’s team find themselves in. Chelsea, like in 2014 have a great opportunity to halt and potentially derail one of their most bitter rivals title challenges.
Although that win in late April nearly five years ago didn’t win the club any silverware, it came very close for the ecstasy it brung with it. Maurizio Sarri has clearly lost a connection with a core base of the support who have thrived off seeing the winning at all costs, “Boring, Boring Chelsea”.
If Sarri was able for a second time this season come out of Anfield the victor, I don’t think many of his harshest critics would be bemoaning him and it would provide us with much more comedy to feast on if you believe the Gerrard slip has run out of laughs already. (Which I don’t).
2. More Pragmatism
Sarri’s biggest detractors will gladly tell you how one-note, simplistic and predictable his tactics and approach to nearly game are.
Though reality tells us there have been notable exceptions, in high-profile encounters in which the purist has sacrificed possession and swallowed his pride, in a pragmatic attempt to manage the game. This was showcased during Chelsea’s first big test of the season at home to Liverpool.
With the Reds flying out of the traps, Sarri’s Chelsea, despite scoring a lot and keeping pace with the league’s best, had a question mark looming over their heads regarding the matter of defensive fragilities. All those fears were quashed as the Blues kept Liverpool’s front-three silent.
What seemed bizarre after in the games against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur in the coming months, Sarri changed, and Chelsea were exposed badly in both of those ties. Being demolished at Wembley, and needing a 96th minute equaliser to salvage a point at home to a wounded United side.
This trend would continue as Sarri worked a masterstroke again at home to Manchester City, containing arguably the best side in Europe and countering superbly to stun the Champions. Many praised Sarri for having a “Plan B” that night to earn him his fist win over Pep Guardiola.
Though a month later, Chelsea turned up to the Emirates and completely were outthought, outfought and exposed once more away from home against bitter London rivals. Even though Sarri had worked wonders against the Citizens in December, that tactical masterclass seemed a distant memory as the Blues were ripped to pieces in the opening 25 minutes at the Etihad in early February.
However, for the first time Sarri’s worrying trend of sporadic and inconsistent tactics were laid to rest momentarily as in the space of a couple of days Sarri proved his ability to be more pragmatic against both Manchester City and Spurs, losing one narrowly on penalties and winning the other 2-0.
Chelsea have two big away games left, arguably the toughest. Winning at Anfield and Old Trafford is a difficult feat. In the modern era only Jose Mourinho’s 04/05 iconic side and Carlo Ancelotti’s free-scoring outfit in 09/10 have managed to come out the other side of those two battles with 6 points. In all realism its hard to see Maurizio Sarri being added to that list, though what he should replicate is the glimpses of clever adaptability which have produced the best defensive performances of the season.
1. Secure Champions League Football
There probably isn’t a more unforgiving job in world football than being Chelsea’s manager. Maurizio Sarri has felt the full force of that more than most have this season, but he’s still standing and appears to still have the backing of Chelsea’s hierarchy.
Getting Chelsea back to Europe’s elite competition appeared to be the remit and the big goal of this season from day one. A bright start to the season fooled a lot of us into dreams of an unexpected title push, though since the harsh winter months arrived, we have well and truly been brought back down to Earth and the reality of Chelsea’s current standing.
Not only by securing Champions League football does it put Chelsea closer to the top of the game, where they should be, It also will probably secure his position going into next season, which is vital given the opportunity for a longer pre-season.
There is also the factor mentioned at the beginning of a divided fanbase, many – match-going, who not only feel out of touch with the club they love, but also a growing hatred of the man in the dugout. There is no beating around the bush here, many simply have a visceral dislike for Sarri to the likes I’ve rarely seen before.
For Sarri to remain in his job for longer than 9 months, this divide has to be repaired and repair quickly for the club to have any harmony going forward. Being inside Stamford Bridge at the moment isn’t a nice environment.
Many who have already made their minds up on the manager are waiting for the first sign to jump up a vent their frustrations. And in all honesty, the team have given plenty of opportunity for that frustration to be vented in the loudest possible manner.
Either with a top four spot or through the route of the Europa League, any will do at this point and can be looked upon as an improvement on last season. Arguably winning silverware is probably a route many of Sarri’s most public haters will find hardest to refute, as he will have extinguished the notion he can’t win silverware.