Arsenal vs Chelsea: Maurizio Sarri has talked himself into a corner - something now has to change

Sarri followed the chastening defeat at Arsenal with one of the most remarkable manager outbursts you'll ever see leaving him with much to do on and off the pitch at Chelsea

Maurizio Sarri furious at Chelsea team after defeat to Arsenal

At the end of a frankly remarkable press conference, where Maurizio Sarri had offered some great television, one broadcasting reporter wondered why there wasn’t an opportunity for more questions. The Chelsea manager then spoke English for the first time in his evening's press duties after the woeful 2-0 defeat to Arsenal - and also smiled for the first time, if with an edge. “What more do you want to know?” Sarri asked.

You could argue the very fact he insisted on speaking Italian to properly convey his fury stated enough in itself, but there was still so much more from the 60-year-old. He really said it all, and went all in.

This was one of the most remarkable manager outbursts you will see in any Premier League season, as he repeated the same criticism of his players’ mental attitude in different ways.

“This defeat was due to our mentality more than anything else, our mental approach,” he kicked off with.

There was then the main line: “it appears this group of players are extremely difficult to motivate.”

Followed by: “We lost it because of our determination.”

And then: “It seems to me that, as a group of players, they're not particularly aggressive from a mental point of view. They don't have that ferocity in their mentality. That's down to the type of players they are, their characteristics.”

And to finish: “I'm very aware of the fact this is never going to be a team well known for its battling and fighting qualities.”

If this felt outlandish from the supposedly more cerebral Sarri, we have of course heard similar from Chelsea managers before, one in that very chair.

It was after another defeat by two goals away to Arsenal, also early in a coaching tenure, that Antonio Conte berated his team and the situation. That famously proved to be a juncture moment for his side, that prompted a drastic change in formation - but also a drastic change in form. Chelsea went on to win the 2016-17 title as a direct consequence of that initially controversial moment.

The issue this time is that this sounded much more like the sort of criticism another former Chelsea manager used to make, in that it directly questioned the character of the players in the way Conte didn’t. This was what Jose Mourinho did, and what played a huge role in eventually costing him his job in that catastrophic 2015-16 season.

Lacazette put Arsenal ahead 

And this was the same kind of monologue, that can cause players to lose faith in a manager, and inadvertently prove him right. It barely needs to be said this was previously a routine problem for Chelsea, where a schism would arise between players and manager where there was only ever going to be one loser.

So, the big question now is whether what feels a landmark moment will prove the path to victory, or just see Sarri lose his job.

It doesn’t feel like things can continue as they are, and continue with so much aimless and tepid passing. Sarri was too furious for that. His criticisms were too pointed for that.

Something now has to change.

For anyone expecting things to go as they traditionally have in the Roman Abramovich era, though, it is worth pointing out that the very example of Conte shows that may not be so inevitable.

This isn’t the Chelsea group of 2007, or 2008, or 2011, or 2012, or 2015. It may not go as it always has, because the squad just isn’t as it always been. Too many big characters from that dressing room have gone, not to mention more recent fiery leaders like Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. That lack of leaders may actually be a problem in itself, but may also mean Sarri doesn’t have the same player-power problem.

Koscielny doubled Arsenal's lead

He alluded to this with the line that “this is never going to be a team well known for its battling and fighting qualities”.

That does not sound like something that fairly describes the playing style of N’Golo Kante or David Luiz, but then this is obviously about something deeper.

There’s also a key difference that, unlike Mourinho or Conte - or, long before that with a different group, Andre Villas-Boas - this squad so far really like Sarri and the way he works. They greatly enjoy training, with Chelsea sources saying he feels like the first manager they’ve had in the modern era who feels like a proper educator, who is actually trying to bring on the game of his players. From that, there is none of the “boredom” they suffered with Conte’s repetitive sessions, nor the bewilderment at Mourinho’s every-changing moods and abrasiveness.

There are, in the words of one figure close to the squad, “no complaints so far”.

Whether that will change as a result of this direct personal criticism remains to be seen, although Sarri is said to be much "softer" in the dressing room than in such press conferences. There's also the very strong possibility that he's completely right, and that this is what this meeker group needs. Chelsea's currently situation similarly means Abramovich himself is likely to think more long-term.

Chelsea didn't look like getting back into the game 

For his part, Sarri didn’t complete absolve himself of blame - “I couldn’t possibly say I am not responsible as well, in part at least, for the mental approach" - and maybe this was the first attempt to affect this. He did insist, however, “tactics don't come into it”.

That seems a little self-serving when a lot of this performance just seemed a continuation of the tactical problems Chelsea have had for some time now, particularly the ponderous nature of their attacking.

This configuration isn’t currently working, which is precisely why Sarri is insistent on signing a forward he knows in Gonzalo Higuain. He did also add that the team mentality might change “with a new player coming in or one of the old heads in the team assuming more responsibility and driving the rest of the team forward”.

It could also be argued that the lack of aggression Sarri spoke of “from a mental point of view” similarly applies from a physical and tactical point of view.

What is so galling about Chelsea is how slow they are, how methodical. They just have none of the spark or “ferocity” that Sarri’s Napoli showed going forward, and that he idealises.

He did reference some of this.

“Their high level of determination was obvious throughout,” Sarri said of Arsenal. “Particularly in both penalty areas. If you think about their determination and how clinical they were when they scored the goals, in defence we stood off a lot and we were not determined and not strong enough in defence.”

But the question then is why he doesn’t change some of this? Why persist with the underperforming Willian and Marcos Alonso? Why not use Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi more? Why is the introduction of a striker in Higuain - who has only scored once in his last 11 league games - the only alteration he is apparently willing to make?

Some of this may actually come down to how he is an educator as a coach.

Sarri was furious in his post-match press conference

Sarri insisted on the eve of this game that he would not change formation because the team are “not ready” for another. In other words, they need to fully understand this before taking on another, with the fair implication being that it doesn’t help clearly learning a new way of playing if you the message is then disrupted by introducing other ways.

That kind of education takes time, and commitment. Former Liverpool assistant Pako Ayestaran also argued on these very pages that, from a coaching and even basic teaching perspective, it can take some pain. The 2005 Champions League winning coach explained that learning a completely new way of doing something tends to go in three stages.

“At the beginning, you have a huge improvement, and a huge progression because of how teams first digest new ideas. There then tends to be a plateau for an extended period, as the ideas must get more specific. Sometimes in this plateau, there are backward steps.”

There is finally the forward strides that come from more fully and deeply understanding the ideas. Ayestaran argued this of Pep Guardiola with Manchester City in the difficult 2016-17 season, and was proven completely correct.

Sarri’s time in charge of Chelsea so far conforms to the first two stages: “huge improvement” at the beginning in that long unbeaten run, followed by “this plateau” and these “backward steps” - not least so many backward passes.

Whether he gets to stage three will now depend on the team and club reaction to his new attitude as much as this defeat. Can this older group even learn in the way he hopes?

A lot was said. A lot now needs to be done.

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