Off came the jacket with a flourish, a blur of blue fabric flying towards the Chelsea bench. Into the mouth - the wrong way around - went another cigarette, a snack that one suspects is about as satisfying to eat as a Twiglet is to smoke. We were 10 minutes into the second half at Stamford Bridge, Anthony Martial had just equalised for Manchester United to make it 1-1, and yet you wondered whether Maurizio Sarri was at last beginning to enjoy himself.
Naturally, he would have been irritated at losing the lead. But as a buzz of excitement began to undulate around the stadium, the sort of buzz that begins to take hold when a crowd grasps that they finally have a proper contest on their hands, it felt, in a strange sort of way, like the Chelsea manager had got the game he wanted.
Sometimes, in order to feel something, you have to risk something. At Napoli and now at Chelsea, Sarri has followed that maxim as faithfully as anyone. The sterile sideways pass, the safety-first clearance to touch, the risk-free 1-0 win: these are things that have never held much interest for him. Which is why, as Chelsea disappeared down the tunnel at half-time, it was easy to see why Sarri was still not quite satisfied.
They led through Antonio Rudiger’s early header, had dominated possession and territory, and yet it was a weirdly bloodless sort of dominance. At times, as Chelsea worked the ball around the houses, they would slow the game almost to walking pace in an attempt to draw United out of their defensive coil.
To be honest, it wasn’t a great game. And whatever this mysterious elixir called Sarriball consists of, you could be sure this wasn’t it. And so as the second half began, it was clear that Sarri had ordered Chelsea to open the game up. To play with a little more vim and freedom and forward thrust. To enjoy themselves a little more.
And how. In the 15 minutes after half-time, Chelsea were playing 56 per cent of their passes forward, as opposed to 44 per cent in the first half. The corollary was that they were losing the ball more and giving up more chances. United, having had just one shot in the whole of the first half, had four between 45 and 57 minutes, including Martial’s well-taken equaliser.
Would another manager, with a 1-0 lead a game of this magnitude, have done the same as Sarri? Certainly not Mourinho. For Mourinho, controlling the game without the ball is one of the touchstones of his coaching style. It was why a relatively attacking line-up spent most of the first half following his instructions to the letter and getting played off the park, before taking the handbrake off and playing the sort of thrilling attacking football of which they have long been capable.
If Sarri could benefit from a little more restraint, you could argue that Mourinho would benefit from a little more. His response to taking the lead was to bring off Juan Mata and Martial for Andreas Pereira and Ander Herrera - two creators for two holders - thus predetermining the grim rearguard from which Chelsea burgled their late, late equaliser. Given the scintillating stuff they had played from 45 to 75 minutes, you could make the argument that the less Mourinho does, the better United play.
And yet for most of the second half, it looked like Sarri’s gamble had turned into an expensive blunder. Martial added a second goal on the counter, and as Chelsea whirred and puffed in search of a way back into the game, what appeared to be unfolding was not so much a failure of tactics or skill but a failure of character: the poor game management that still looks like their main obstacle to a genuine title challenge.
But football is about moments as much as it is about monuments. And as David Luiz’s header clattered against the post and Rudiger’s rebound was saved and Ross Barkley smashed the ball home to spark wild indignation in the United dugout and wild celebrations everywhere else, you wondered whether Sarri would judge that, in a roundabout sort of way, it had all been worth it. The critics will point out that Chelsea dropped two points in a game they were consummately controlling. The cynics will sneer that this sort of reckless risk-taking is why Sarri is yet to win a major trophy in his career. But as Barkley’s shot hit the net, you suspect he had rarely felt more alive.
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