LONDON — Eight months in, Maurizio Sarri has reached the fork in the road that all Chelsea coaches arrive at sooner or later.
The initial wave of excitement that greeted his arrival at Stamford Bridge is long gone; now every Chelsea performance is scrutinised for evidence either of a corner turned or a tipping point reached. Look closely at Saturday’s 5-0 rout of Huddersfield Town and you could see signs of both.
Three days after shutting himself in the Vitality Stadium dressing room with his players for the best part of 40 minutes after the 4-0 shock defeat to Bournemouth, Sarri could not have wished for a more ideal fixture. Bottom of the league, Huddersfield are a Championship team in waiting, yet the manner in which Chelsea put them to the sword at least suggested the Italian’s ideas have not been completely disregarded, even if they are far from fully absorbed by his players.
“I think that in the first 25 minutes we played our football,” Sarri said after watching Chelsea score more than two goals in a Premier League match for the first time since November. “We moved the ball very fast, very well, there was good movement without the ball.”
Sarri prefers to talk about football in terms of tactics, so it is to his own dismay that his most frequent topic of postmatch discussion this season has been “mentality.” The strange, inscrutable flakiness of this core of Chelsea players also infuriated Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, eventually playing a part in the downfall of both. Sarri is determined not to suffer the same fate quietly.
Asked if he had ever coached a team with two such different faces, he replied: “Not in the past, but my target is to improve the mentality. If we are able to improve in mentality then it will be easier to arrive in every match with the right level of application, of determination.”
Sarri, however, has not been given the same sympathy as his predecessors by the Chelsea supporters; indeed, it is striking how quickly many have turned on him. Mourinho or Conte were never subjected to the chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” heard at the Vitality Stadium, nor individual fans waiting to confront them outside the ground.
Tactical inflexibility, both between and during games, has been a common cause of frustration, as well as Chelsea’s tendency to lapse into sterile possession when faced with opponents well prepared for Sarri’s style. The question these days is not how to nullify central midfield pivot Jorginho, but merely who has been assigned the marking job.
Yet it is also tempting to wonder if history plays a part here. Chelsea’s greatest triumphs of the Roman Abramovich era were built not on high-minded football philosophy, but on power and pragmatism. Particular pleasure was taken in beating ideologues like Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola. In order to succeed, Sarri may also have to change the mentality of many in the stands.
Even in victory over Huddersfield, this tension was never far from the surface. It was evident in the wave of exasperated groans that greeted every backwards Jorginho pass; every good shooting opportunity turned down in search of a great one; every visiting counter-attack that escaped Chelsea’s high press.
As the fulcrum of the system and symbol of “Sarriball,” Jorginho has borne the brunt of the on-pitch criticism. At times he has also deserved it, becoming a little passive and tentative as he adapts to a league more intense and physical than anything he has known before.
Huddersfield saw a return of the Italy international’s more progressive side, though Sarri was keen to point out that even his midfield lynchpin’s least convincing displays this season did not occur in isolation.
“Jorginho needs movement without the ball from other players, because he’s used to playing at one touch,” Sarri insisted. “It’s very difficult to play one touch without the movement of the other players.”
Goals always lift the mood. Higuain’s arrival on loan from Juventus in January mirrored the signing of Olivier Giroud last season, an aging striker acquired and applied like a sticking plaster onto a malfunctioning team. Yet the ferocity and confidence of both of his finishes against Huddersfield, each dispatched with one sweeping touch, suggested he could provide exactly what has been missing.
His presence also allowed Eden Hazard to do what he does best from the left wing, and there were encouraging flashes of chemistry between the pair.
“He’s a great striker,” Hazard said of Higuain to Chelsea TV. “He’s a bit less of a target man than Giroud, but he can hold the ball, he can play one touches and he’s intelligent. In the box he’s unbelievable. He will score more goals.”
He will need to. February is brutal for Chelsea, bringing matches against Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham in the Premier League, FA Cup fifth round and Carabao Cup final.
By the time it is over, Sarri’s revolution will either be planning for its second season or on the road to ruin.