When Chelsea appointed Maurizio Sarri they wanted the introduction of a style of play comparable to Liverpool or Manchester City’s, but what they got on Saturday was more reminiscent of Arsenal’s performances at the home of divisional rivals during the final years of Arsene Wenger’s reign: a slow and sloppy passing game ripped apart by the sheer relentlessness of high-octane opposition.
Perhaps it was just a bad day at the office for Chelsea, but defeats of this significance were symptomatic of Sarri’s Napoli spell as well. During his final two seasons there, six of Napoli’s seven Serie A defeats were against sides who finished the respective campaigns in the top four.
There is an obvious superficiality in criticising a manager for only losing to the calibre of team capable of beating his own, but it also highlights a failure to out-think high-quality opponents in one-off games. From his four Premier League meetings with the Big Six so far, three coming at home, the Italian has only won one of them – against Arsenal during the second weekend of the new season when the Gunners were still getting to grips with life under Unai Emery.
Pep Guardiola will attest that Manchester City’s transition into the most dominant Premier League champions of all time suffered its fair share of early setbacks.
Changes in personnel were needed in a few key areas, but the whole squad required time to adapt and come his second season at the Etihad Stadium, the side he’d inherited from Manuel Pellegrini had become an entirely different animal. Sarri has often warned this won’t be the season Chelsea challenge English football’s top clubs – perhaps he knew results and performances of Saturday’s variety would be inevitable somewhere down the line.
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And yet, for Chelsea it represents a seismic culture shock that may soon lead to questions over whether Sarri’s reign is anything more than a vanity project, a desperate attempt to keep up with modern Premier League trends. Four of Chelsea’s five title wins, Carlo Ancelotti excepting, were built upon the pragmatic resilience to get something from games like Saturday’s, regardless of performance.
The idea of the Blues losing to Tottenham because their style lacked the necessary bedrock of substance seems so alien to the history and traditions of the Roman Abramovich era – in fact, in the context of this particular rivalry it’s almost a complete role reversal from four or five years ago, when Spurs were always Chelsea’s whipping boys.
Certainly throughout this season too, it feels like that will be a recurring trend for Chelsea away at the Big Six. Right now, the Blues only have one game-plan and just a couple of starting XI variations within that, which is centred almost entirely around the influence of a few key personnel.
It made them glaringly predictable on Saturday, Tottenham forcing the Blues to play within their own third before picking them off, and unless an alternative is developed in the coming weeks Liverpool, City and even Arsenal and Manchester United will feel confident in succeeding with similar approaches when they entertain the west Londoners.
Clearly Sarri has some thinking to do before his side face the reigning champions in December, but more than anything else this is an early test of the whole club’s commitment to the new way of thinking. While trophies couldn’t keep Antonio Conte in the job, Sarri represents the opposite end of the spectrum – eye-catching football that won’t necessarily translate into success, and could often result in Chelsea falling short against divisional rivals.
Under Abramovich, that type of manager has never really succeeded before – but these are different times we live in. With Manchester City so incredibly dominant, the onus to win silverware isn’t what it once was, even in west London. After all, there are only four honours available to any club and City appear to have at least one of them sewn up each season.
For a club so used to winning at all costs though, to the extent that their greatest achievement to date – the 2012 Champions League – came during one of the worst ever seasons of the Abramovich era, it remains to be seen how much patience pundits, paymasters and fans will truly have with the transition, and whether they buy into the idea that Sarri’s style of play is as rewarding to them as silverware.
It may seem needlessly reactionary to question how much patience a manager will be shown after losing just his first game of the season on the 13th attempt, but the nature of the defeat feels like an early crossroads – an early chance to head back the way they came rather than venture an unfamiliar path together.
This is part of the parcel with the ideology Sarri’s been asked to bring to Stamford Bridge, to the extent that his managerial career is yet to yield any honours, but ninety minutes at Wembley on Saturday highlighted how far removed from the traditional Chelsea ethos that ideology really is. Every new manager is allowed to make mistakes, but recurring defeats of this nature won’t be stomached for too long.