The divide in Chelsea’s support: Maurizio Sarri Cult

A typically chaotic season at Chelsea concludes with another European trophy, the return of Champions League football and Maurizio Sarri’s departure to Juventus – a contentious topic among Chelsea supporters.

Sarri was tasked with the vision of revolutionising Chelsea’s pragmatic style of play to one of effortless, expansive football; much aligned with the intricacies of the modern game where emphasis on ball retention is paramount.

Despite the troubles that he encountered, of which there were many, Sarri’s first season outside his native Italy delivered Chelsea their first European trophy for six years, a return to the Champions League and a narrow cup-final defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Objectively, one would argue that the 60-year-old has surpassed the expectations bestowed on him and his first campaign with the Blues has been a resounding success. Superficially, a European trophy and Champions League football are tremendous achievements in an age of heightened competition and at a club undergoing a transition.

However, it would be disingenuous to imply that all is rosy among the supporters at Stamford Bridge. To focus solely on Chelsea’s achievements would be a disservice to the thousands of match-going supporters who grew increasingly disenfranchised with the manager as the season progressed. Irrespective of winning the Europa League, the relationship between the support and Sarri has been palpably fragmented.

Resultantly, the atmosphere surrounding the club, both in the stands and on social media, has been distinctly toxic. While it’s difficult to expect any manager to reject the allure of Juventus, the Sun reported that Sarri decided to leave the club after furious chanting from the away support in Chelsea’s fortuitous 2-1 victory at Cardiff in March – showcasing the fractured relationship he shared with supporters.

Despite winning the Europa League with a comprehensive 4-1 triumph against Arsenal and attaining a respectable third-place finish in the Premier League, many supporters remained steadfast in their belief that Sarri’s future laid beyond Stamford Bridge. When his departure was officially announced by Chelsea last week, many supporters revelled in the news; others were not so pleased.

The ideological differences between both groups of fans are central in understanding the current divide. Appointing Sarri was a definitive change in direction from the club’s hierarchy. Appointing a trophyless manager at Chelsea would have been a laughable notion for most of the Roman era, yet the Italian’s appointment highlighted the club’s pursuit of an attractive on-field identity.

Under Pep Guardiola’s leadership, Manchester City have monopolised the Premier League with an expansive, easily identifiable, and most importantly, enchanting style of play. More recently, Liverpool have reaped the rewards of Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing in the form of the club’s sixth Champions League title. Success accompanied by style.

Over the previous two decades, Chelsea have been relentless winners – they have won more major honours than any other English team (17). This desire for success, the win-at-all-costs mentality has defined the club in the Roman era, yet the Russian owner has always, supposedly, been eager to see Chelsea play football attractively. Winning is always the ambition; it has epitomised modern-day Chelsea, but winning with style was seemingly most important.

Sarri’s mission was to emulate his work in Naples, where he transformed Napoli into one of Europe’s most exciting and enterprising outfits; with seamless attacking transitions and an eagerness to win the ball back immediately. He was the man assigned with delivering Abramovich’s vision, by introducing free-flowing football to Stamford Bridge following years of pragmatism in differing forms.

Crucially, this ideological shift is at the heart of the debate that is splitting the Chelsea support. Much of Chelsea’s success under the Abramovich era has stemmed from ruthless pragmatism, with counter-attacking football being a staple of Chelsea’s play. As Cesc Fabregas told the Guardian in 2012,

“We would dominate the ball, keep possession, create chances and then, a counter-attack, [Didier] Drogba, goal! They have a super-fast counter-attack, and it was a film that we saw again and again.”

“With [André] Villas-Boas, they tried to have the ball a lot more, they tried to not play so many balls long and to not seek out the second ball quite so much. Now they have returned that Chelsea that made them great and led them to win the Premier League and reach Champions League semi-finals and finals.”

This innate ability to grind results became a source of tremendous pride for supporters, and it was a cornerstone of the team’s identity. While Chelsea’s football varied in its form from Jose Mourinho to Roberto Di Matteo or more recently Antonio Conte, the ideals that underpinned each strategy were very similar.

Rightly or wrongly, if a manager is introduced to transform a style of play; the change must be for the better. Glimpses of the football that Sarri has become renowned for creating has been displayed at Stamford Bridge this season, but mostly, the implementation of his style of play has proven troublesome.

Chelsea scored the fewest goals in the top-six and failed to register a single away victory against the teams in the top 10. Even in Chelsea’s woeful surrender of the Premier League title the season before last, the Blues scored only one goal fewer and amassed two points less than Sarri’s Chelsea. These stats are hardly aligned with the pretence of attractive football, the premise on which Sarri was appointed; that’s without considering the humbling 4-0 and 6-0 away defeats to Bournemouth and Manchester City, respectively.

For many Chelsea supporters, the promise of attacking football has been unsubstantiated, and in its place, there have been sequences of repetitive and mundane football. While it would be unrealistic to expect the full and seamless implementation of Sarriball in its first season, Sarri even confessed in January that his players had yet to master the basic principles of his style of play.

Interestingly, some of Sarri’s most impressive victories as Chelsea manager have resulted from more traditional Chelsea performances. Chelsea had fewer shots and less of the possession in their 2-0 home triumph against Manchester City and had less of the ball than Tottenham as they defeated them 2-0 in the league at Stamford Bridge.

In truth, Chelsea stumbled sluggishly to the top-four having only earnt six points out of a possible 15 in their last five league games of the campaign, while failing to win six out of their last ten Premier League fixtures. Chelsea’s ability to finish third was seemingly a product of their rivals’ failures to capitalise rather than an achievement of their own making.

Another source of frustration has been Sarri’s well-documented stubbornness. The Blues have deployed the 4-3-3 formation in every single one of their 63 games this season; hardly indicative of creativity and tactical adaptability.

When you consider these points, coupled with the alienation of fan favourites such as Gary Cahill and Sarri’s public dismissal of supporters’ opinions, it’s unsurprising that the manager fell out-of-favour with the Stamford Bridge faithful. Even in his finest hour at the club; the ideal conditions to reconnect with a disillusioned fanbase, Sarri dedicated the Europa Lague victory to the supporters of his former club. Perhaps, in hindsight, it was a way of softening the blow for Napoli fans as he joins their bitter rivals.

However, for other Chelsea fans, Sarri’s departure denotes the end of a dream.  The appeal of attacking football was so profound that it led some to back the Italian unwaveringly.

Many fans feel, due to Sarri’s exit, that Chelsea have lost the opportunity to evolve their footballing identity according to the demands and the innovations of modern-day football.  One gets the sense that the demand for attacking football and the desire to change was so pronounced, that any manager tasked with introducing a similar philosophy to Sarri would have been supported unconditionally.

Therein lies the dilemma that Chelsea supporters will have to navigate. The need for stability could prove popular in the pursuit of consensus, and after all, perhaps Frank Lampard is the most suitable candidate to restore some semblance of normality at Stamford Bridge.

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