It all stemmed from a misunderstanding, according to both Maurizio Sarri and Kepa Arrizabalaga. The Chelsea keeper provided one of the defining moments of the European soccer season in refusing to be subbed off before penalties during Chelsea’s loss to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final. Kepa, offering a distinctly modern apology by sharing an Apple note on Twitter in both Spanish and English, explained that he was trying to relay to Sarri that he fought off his cramp and didn’t need to be taken off. Video of Sarri’s reaction, and the ensuing memes, only exasperated the moment. Cutting through the noise, John Terry did not buy the explanation in his post-match analysis, saying that both comments were made to protect the media from investigating into underlying issues.
Despite Sarri’s attempt to divide dressing room dynamics with public perception, Kepa was fined a week’s wages and benched for their match against Tottenham days later in what the Italian manager described as “a message” that the side were bigger than just one player. Willy Caballero, in veteran fashion, saw the confrontation as an opportunity for learning - at least publicly. He stated that “sometimes these things pull players apart but in this case we are more together than ever”. And they did beat Tottenham 2-0.
The public spectacle was embarrassing, but it was just the second most damaging revelation of Chelsea’s week. The club also received a transfer ban across two windows for violating rules related to signing players under 18 years old. They were found guilty of article 19 - playing youth players without proper registration - in 92 out of 100 investigated cases. The findings presented another look into how top sides navigate the rules in the battle for global talent. Lyon striker Bertrand Traore, who signed for Chelsea a day after his 18th birthday, was photographed playing for their youth side in a “non-competitive” match when he was 16. In unofficially moving from Auxerre to Chelsea, the club paid for Traore’s schooling in England while making a $200,000 payment to his mom, further signaling a world of unspoken agreements and handshakes.
Though with Chelsea appealing, a ban likely will not be in place until later transfer windows (a Twitter poll asking who the club should sign this summer shows their level of concern). And while the ban seems damning on the surface, there are ways to navigate out of the predicament with proper planning. Before Barcelona’s transfer ban in 2014, they spent $200 million on Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, all of whom make up the current side’s backbone five years later. Atletico Madrid found creative ways to get passed their transfer ban in signing Vitolo from Sevilla, then loaning him out to Las Palmas. Although Chelsea may lack what both La Liga sides had in stability and an overarching style.
“I never really speak to him, so I’d be happy to speak to him,” said Sarri of Roman Abramovich following their 6-0 loss to Manchester City. Sarri added that he “didn’t know what to expect” when it came to whether he would remain as manager. But he could have been talking about Chelsea’s future during the transfer ban as well.
It may have been the single most expensive WhatsApp group in history, made up by the 33 players Chelsea had on-loan in 2015, a place for player bonding while in exile. Weekend highlights were circulated throughout the chat, although Patrick Bamford, then on loan at Crystal Palace at the time, observed that “sometimes it drains your battery when everyone is messaging each other.” Another absurd, yet telling detail surrounding the chat was how goalkeeper Matej Delac, who had been loaned out 10 times in his seven seasons at Chelsea while not making single appearance for the senior side, became the club’s longest serving player in 2017. Attempts to dominate European soccer follow its own unique rabbit hole.
Although the club trimmed down to just 22 players on loan this season. How many of these names were eventually responsible in Chelsea getting their two-window transfer ban? It is reminiscent of a current college basketball scandal revolving around recruiting: doesn’t every team in the world blur the boundaries when it comes to adding talent through unspoken agreements? Manchester City are currently being investigated for how they signed Jadon Sancho from Watford by giving his agent a “scouting contract” to help sway the player to the club. With the increasing focus on global branding and attention, there seems to be a tacit understanding that this is just how things happen behind the scenes. The only crime is in getting caught.
Ironically, we may find that Chelsea will have to use their extensive, on loan youth talent to thrive during the ban, especially if Eden Hazard leaves for Real Madrid as per speculation. Terry echoed the sentiment that Chelsea’s struggles this season combined with the transfer ban was an opportunity for Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to gain valuable playing experience, adding “let’s blood the younger players and see what we’ve got”. With an uncertain future ahead, now would be the time for players of Chelsea’s system to define the personality and identity of the side.
Chelsea were of their time during the turn of the decade with the emphasis on signing players on loan and feeding them to clubs throughout Europe for development and an eventual sell. It looked good on paper and in spreadsheets, and it was effective. But as the older generation of personalities that defined the side’s backbone from Terry to Frank Lampard turned, there was no leader to regain control of the team’s emotion. Besides, buying players is passe - the current movement is about buying clubs under a portfolio like the City Football Group (is the next step for a conglomerate to purchase an entire league?).
I initially thought that the transfer ban could end up being a blessing for Sarri as the club strives for continuity. It could be an opportunity for Sarri to settle down with a group of players and mold them into his quick, passing vision. Yet even if Sarri eventually takes the fall, the mentality and pestilence brought on by instability looks to set Chelsea into a culture of short booms like Mourinho and Antonio Conte initially experienced, followed by an inevitable decline regardless of the manager. After beating Tottenham and knocking them out of the title race, Sarri tried to put the previous month in perspective, saying that any manager would be under pressure after two or three losses. He did concede that the pressure may be more scrutinized at Chelsea.