“This defeat was due to our mentality more than anything else,” accused Maurizio Sarri following Chelsea’s 2-0 loss against Arsenal last month. “This group of players are extremely difficult to motivate,” he added. And lest there be a possibility of his anger lost in translation, Sarri made a point to switch to Italian before the post-match press conference because he wanted to send a very clear message to his players. Sarri ended by discussing the importance of sacrifice in managing the overall structure of a game, saying “we need to become a team that is capable of adapting, possibly suffering for 10 or 15 minutes then playing our own football.”
Sarri warned us during his record-breaking run of 12 matches unbeaten to open his Premier League career to hold off on expectations. And while the Arsenal match showed cracks, Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth brought their issues front and center. Sarri continued to harp upon his team’s lack of fighting spirit, saying after that defeat that he didn’t think that issue was with tactics. From that perspective, tactics seem easy and cutting through the soft factors, the variables outside of analytics, seems impossibly opaque. In a span of three short months, still insistent on his 4-3-3 formation that calls to mind Einstein’s definition of insanity, Sarri began fielding chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing.” “We keep repeating the same mistakes,” Sarri lamented.
It could be off-the-field distractions manifesting their way into a lack of fighting spirit during matches. There is the continual question of whether Eden Hazard wants to remain on the side, with rumors that he’s made up his mind to move to Real Madrid this summer. Alvaro Morata’s mysterious loss of confidence, especially in light of their lack of depth up front resulting in Hazard playing a false 9, surely did not help. Callum Hudson-Odoi also stated his desire to move away from the team, with Sarri guilting him to stay for now. And Roman Abramovich is reportedly still texting Carlo Ancelotti question marks during their recent struggles.
From the outside, Chelsea’s dip in form is easier to explain from a tactical perspective starting with the holding midfielder dilemma featuring N’Golo Kante and Jorginho. Moving Kante from a position in which he’s considered the best in the world stamped Sarri’s impact heading into the season, though pessimistically, it highlights an inflexibility of a playing style where philosophy dictates a players’ position regardless of their quality. But Sarri was hired precisely to do things his own specific way, thus Jorginho’s metronomic passing was installed at the base of midfield.
Jorginho’s rise and fall this season goes hand-in-hand with Sarri’s. He bossed opposition defenses early, even setting a record by playing 180 passes against West Ham earlier this season. Yet his lack of mobility leads him easy to mark out of matches, leading to the question of what role he plays in the first place. His ability to set tempo through his one-touch passing and create cohesion to Chelsea’s story arc during a match sparks divisive debate. Rio Ferdinand called out the effectiveness of his passing, asking “how many assists has he got this season? Around 2000 passes, no assists.”
It was only months ago that Ross Barkley discussed the influence of Sarri’s managerial ability on his development, and Jorginho praised his manager’s mentality for making him a better player at Napoli. Sarri, perhaps too successful too early in the season, is a victim of his own success and expectations. Like with the move for Jorginho, Sarri again went back to the familiarity of the past to rescue his present in forcing a loan move for Gonzalo Higuain. Regardless, Sarri observes that he must do better with the rest of his players, add “my football is cooperation, so I have to speak to my players. I have to involve them in my football.”
The mentality bug seeped into other clubs as well.
Marco Silva claimed that his Everton players were failing to motivate themselves, saying “when you are a professional and working in a club like Everton, the obligation is to be motivated”. With Arsenal winless in their last 6 away matches, Unai Emery said that his side play better when they “prepare for matches by thinking it’s going to be very difficult."
Silva laid out the delineation of responsibilities between player and manager, adding “my job is to show them clearly what they are doing, and what they are doing wrong on the pitch. To help them know why and understand why...you are always doing the same mistakes.” Silva’s approach appears logical on the surface, with players bringing their motivation and desire and Silva molding that energy with an overarching structure. Emery added that the foundation of a team is the preparation and mindset of winning, adding that “tactics are the second issue.”
There remains a question of what Zinedine Zidane actually did to win three Champions League titles as Real Madrid manager, usually ending with a relatively unsatisfactory conclusion that he gave his side a winning mentality. It’s disappointing in its simplicity, going against the social media influence of deeper tactical analytical discussions on Twitter: there are no small insights to identify or improve upon, boxing the viewer out of the discussion, dividing the supporter and club with an unknown formula of the dressing room. Not to say that Sarri was invented on Twitter, but his rise in the social media consciousness from his days at Empoli have strictly dealt with his system and playing style.
Sarri offered a last defense by asking for more patience and time from supporters, players, and his owner. When asked whether he should formulate a Plan B, he mentioned Barcelona’s dominance, saying “everybody 10 years ago knew Barcelona very well, but Barcelona still won everything because they played their football very well.” He pointed to foreign managers at the top of the table as examples of long-term building, from Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, and Jurgen Klopp, reminding us that Liverpool were mid-table in the German’s first season at the club. But each of those three managers experienced some sort of adversity - whether stylistic or financial - and had to adjust to the reality of the Premier League. Perhaps those adjustments took away from their pure ideal of the game in the name of pragmatism. “I am a dreamer,” maintains Sarri. “I want to play my football.”