For Maurizio Sarri, the signs get worse and worse. It’s been a long time since the FA Cup saved a manager his job, but it retains the power to help shuffle him out of the door. It’s not even that Chelsea lost 2-0 at home to Manchester United on Wednesday; it was the sense of familiarity about the failings, the way Chelsea went through all the same motions and ended up with the same result.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the question had been how he would respond not only to the defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last week, but how he would adapt to the injury-induced loss of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, whose pace and trickery have been such a feature of United’s best play under him so far. The answer to that was remarkably well. To call this a defensive performance would be misleading, but United was happy to let Chelsea have the ball and hold it at arm’s length. The victory and passage to the quarterfinal, in the end, was comfortable enough.
There is always a danger of reading too much into a single game, particularly when it is one set up as perfectly as this. On the one side, a Chelsea team that had lost four of its previous nine games, casting the whole Sarri-project into doubt; and on the other a United that had just lost its first match under Solskjaer, raising the first questions about his long-term suitability for the job he is occupying until the end of the season.
Sarri selected his big-game midfield, which is to say the ball-retaining trio of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante. The problems were familiar: plenty of passing, not a lot of penetration and everybody essentially waiting either for a set play or for Eden Hazard to do something brilliant. The Belgian, though, was well-marshalled by Ashley Young and Ander Herrera without United ever resorting to the physicality that was the hallmark of its performances in this ground under Jose Mourinho.
Solskjaer had gone for the diamond midfield he fielded at Tottenham and Arsenal, with Juan Mata at its point and Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku operating as split strikers, dragging the Chelsea back four apart to be picked off by runners from midfield. And that, really, was the biggest difference between the sides: United had runners from midfield who offered a goal-threat; Chelsea did not and so was largely without threat.
Paul Pogba, understandably, will take the headlines, having assisted one goal and scoring one, but Ander Herrera was almost as threatening from the other side of the diamond. He had already drawn one fine diving save from Kepa Arrizabalaga with a long-range drive when he ran in to Pogba’s sumptuous 31st-minute cross to steer a header into the bottom corner.
Pogba got the second himself in the stroke of halftime, winning possession on the halfway line, laying the ball in behind Marcos Alosno for Rashford and then advancing to bully a header past Arrizabalaga, a goal that recalled Bryan Robson in his pomp. It was Pogba’s ninth goal since Solskjaer took over as opposed to three this season under Jose Mourinho.
Chelsea did not capitulate, as it had at Bournemouth and Manchester City, but equally its menace was, at best, intermittent. Most troubling of all for Sarri is the sense that the fans have lost patience. As they chanted for Callum Hudson-Odoi to come on, he introduced first Willian and then Ross Barkley, following the same weary formula as usual and then, bafflingly, Davide Zappacosta. It's little wonder the 18-year-old, a $55 million target for Bayern Munich, is so keen to leave the club. If he cannot get a chance in these circumstances, then when will he?
By the final 20 minutes, Chelsea fans were in full revolt. The chants didn’t last long, but they were distinct: “F*** Sarri-ball! F*** Sarri-ball!” Turbulence is a way of life at Stamford Bridge, but the home crowd has rarely had time to turn on the manager. Apart from Rafa Benitez, who was disliked form the start for reasons that had little to do with his ability, the only other manager of the Roman Abramovich era to have suffered such a loss of faith is Andre Villas-Boas.
It’s all very well to talk of long-term plans and giving a manager time (and Sarri, it must be acknowledged, has not been supported by his club in the way that, say, Pep Guardiola has by Manchester City) but there has to be confidence that the project is being built around the right man, and at Chelsea at the moment there are clear and obvious doubts.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, burnishes his reputation further. As Sarri edges closer to the door, his counterpart looks more and more comfortable in his job.