When Maurizio Sarri took over at Chelsea at the start of the season, the expectation was that it would take time for him to impose his methods and that it wouldn’t really be until Christmas that it first became possible to tell whether he was likely to make a success of the job. It hasn’t worked out like that.
After losing to Manchester City in the Community Shield, Chelsea went 18 games unbeaten in all competitions. Sarriball, it seemed, might not be such an alien concept after all, at least not to a squad used to chaotic coaching changes and adapting to the demands of new leader after new leader. Yet in the past two months there has been a wobble so alarming that the loan signing of Gonzalo Higuain, confirmed on Wednesday, has come to seem like the one thing that might save the season.
Sarri’s attack on his players’ mentality after Saturday's defeat at Arsenal was remarkable, but it’s too simplistic to suggest that it marks the beginning of end, as public criticism of the Chelsea squad has tended to for managers in the past. For one thing, this is a Chelsea squad lacking some of the big personalities of old, and for another, not all attacks on a team are the same. Sarri is a paternal figure who has only ever really fallen out with peripheral figures before. Players are far less likely to react badly to a manager they like and respect than one to whom they are already antagonistic.
But that’s not to say there aren’t issues. Since Tottenham showed how easy it is to disrupt Chelsea by marking Jorginho, Sarri’s side has struggled. It has lost five of its last 11 league games, and even when winning Chelsea has found it hard to break opponents down. The limp first-half display at the Emirates suggested issues not just of mentality but also of tactics and personnel.
The signing of Higuain, it’s true, does immediately begin to resolve the issue of the forward line. He can come in at center-forward, where Sarri clearly had no faith in either Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud, and that means that Eden Hazard, rather than functioning as a reluctant striker, can return to what he is best at, ghosting in off the left flank. That, in turn, means Willian can go back to contesting the right-sided attacking role with Pedro, rather than ploughing a dispiriting furrow up and down the left wing, constantly looking to cut inside onto his stronger right foot.
Amid his post-match fury, Sarri observed that “a new player coming in” could change the mentality. It’s possible Higuain may do that, particularly if he starts scoring goals early and restores a little confidence, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to do that. It’s not just that he has never played in the Premier League before and may take time to adapt, it’s that Higuain himself is not necessarily a particularly ebullient or resilient player.
This has been the worst season of his senior career, but it was going fine until he was sent off playing for Milan against Juventus, leading to a spectacular tantrum since when he has scored only once in nine appearances. The hurt of being pushed out of Juve to make way for Cristiano Ronaldo clearly hasn’t gone away.
Besides which, the front line is only part of Chelsea’s recent problems. Sarri’s system demands a regista at the back of midfield, which is why he signed Jorginho from Napoli. But introducing him meant nudging N’Golo Kante out of position, and when the midfield is completed by Mateo Kovacic there is profound dearth of goals from that area.
The defense, similarly, seems oddly constituted. David Luiz always seems far happier as part of a three-man central defense than a two-man setup. Cesar Azpilicueta is fine at right back but was an excellent right-sided center back. Marcos Alonso would probably be happier at left wingback rather than fullback.
But this is the problem of Chelsea’s transfer policy. Each new manager is always, to an extent, dealing with players bought to serve the ideas of previous regimes. That’s problematic for anybody, but perhaps especially so for somebody with an approach as idiosyncratic as Sarri.
Higuain enjoyed his best season under Sarri at Napoli, breaking the Serie A record for most goals scored in a season. His loan until the end of the season can in that regard be seen as a move to provide Sarri with the players he needs, but he is 31 and would be expensive as a permanent signing. And besides, how far does this go? Is Chelsea, with its present policy of retrenchment, really prepared to replace half the squad to fit in with Sarri’s approach?
Higuain may solve some of the issues, but plenty of others remain.