Chelsea will not be a Top club under Maurizio Sarri and this is why

Chelsea used to have the coaches, players, Champions League regularity and high-spending ambition to attract any top player they wanted. Now they have the history they didn’t have then, but not much else. Throughout what are now the middle years of the Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea didn’t need to court prospective players as much as they simply needed to choose from the line forming outside their door.

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The club had the coaches players want to play for, like Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. Even a short-termer like Luiz Felipe Scolari had some pull. If a player wanted some certainty of Champions League football and a very high probability of reaching the knockout stages, Chelsea were the place to be.

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Abramovich had the money and the willingness to spend it, so players and their agents would not waste their time trying to engineer a move only for the club to cheap out. And, of course, the best attract the best. Chelsea had the players other players want to play with.

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Chelsea are several transfer windows into the new normal. For the second time in three seasons they are in the Europa League. The one player who could lure top-calibre players – Eden Hazard – has one foot out the door. The club are not spending aggressively to secure the best available players, with the exception of Kepa Arrizabalaga. And they do not have a coach world-class players are lining up to play under.

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Whatever Eden Hazard may have imagined it would be like to play for Maurizio Sarri, reality has disabused him of that notion. If other top players around the world had the same initial impression of Sarri as Hazard, they are learning from Hazard’s experience.

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The best players in the world are not interested in being the fastest lever-pullers on a team. The entire reason they are the best players in the world is because they read the game, play the game and do things in a game that not only can no one else do, but that no one else even thinks is possible until they see it done.

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Watch any highlight clip of any player you would consider to be among the best at what they do: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Eden Hazard, Kylian Mbappe, Andrea Pirlo, Sergio Busquets, David Silva, peak Cesc Fabregas, Ronaldinho.

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Does it look like it’s scripted? Other than a free-kick, does it look like something they have practiced verbatim on the training pitch dozens or hundreds of times? Or does it look like the in-the-moment creation of a genius, someone reacting to the players around him and doing something that leaves them helpless because – as good as they are – this player you’re watching is so much better?

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It’s the difference between Arrested Development or Veep and Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory. Organic and improvisational vs. derivative and formulaic. Freely flowing and loosely structured or scripted and minutely rehearsed. Memorable or serviceable. Pep Guardiola or Maurizio Sarri. Conflate the two at the peril of your own credibility.

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Here’s the thing: neither approach is right or wrong. They’re just different. They appeal to different audiences at different times for different purposes. I may prefer one system, and you may prefer another. Some days you do just want to binge on network sitcoms, other days you want the madcap pacing of the niche shows.

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Some actors and players are better suited for one style than the other, either by talent or temperament. Within television, the more conventional approach certainly is more stable and lucrative. And that is where the analogy comes to an end.

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The highest-paid footballers, unlike most of the highest paid actors, are the ones who transcend the predictable, the conventional and – crucially – the predetermined. The best players in the world can only be the best players in the world within a minimally constrained environment where they can express their talents.

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The top tier of creative players do not want to play for Maurizio Sarri because they have no special place in his system. A world-class player does not add much marginal value to Sarri’s systems beyond an excellent or above-average player. It takes a certain amount of talent and football intelligence to execute any circuits in a game situation, particularly in a top league.

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But it’s a certain amount, not necessarily a special amount relative to their peers. For players like Hazard and others Chelsea wish to attract – and once did – it leaves them wanting more and with more to give. Again, despite what seems like my obvious preferences and prejudices, this is not about one way being superior to the other. There is a time and place for everything.

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The issue for Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea is threefold. One, he does not think there is a time and place for everything. At any given time and place in his domain, there is only his system, as rigid in its application as in its design. Second, Chelsea as a club are not accustomed to having circumstances dictate their decisions on the pitch or in the transfer market.

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Club leadership has no issue with a manager choosing to play “pragmatically” or in a circuit-based system. But Chelsea do not want the manager only using circuits – and limited ones, at that – because that is the extent of the players’ ability. Likewise, they are secure with their decisions to pass up world-class players in the transfer market. They are not OK with those players not listening to an offer.

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The third problem arises when you combine the first two. Maurizio Sarri only knows and only wants the team play mechanically. Therefore he will not be able to attract the level of players he thinks he needs and the club are accustomed to getting.

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This will leave Chelsea with players one step below those upon whom they built the Abramovich dynasty of Premier League titles, a Champions League and a Europa League. They, in turn, will limit Chelsea’s ability to return to those heights through their style of play, trophy haul and Champions League qualifications.

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The next coach will either reinforce that level by maintaining the style and calibre of play; or he will need several years of transfers and training to re-establish Chelsea among the elite. Obviously, the third possibility is an endless series of coaches who arrive under the auspices of the latter but delivering the former.

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Maurizio Sarri is not the root cause, but he is catalyzing Chelsea’s transition into the second-tier of the transfer market. The club no longer have the cash outflow, Champions League certainty, coach or incumbent players to attract the best.



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