Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal was no surprise to anybody that has been watching the Blues recently. Although Arsenal’s own form has been ropey of late, they simply followed each of the two different templates that have emerged in the last couple of months on how to frustrate the Blues .
First, they began by pressing aggressively, stifling the man in possession, committing players to snuff out the inevitable short pass and gamble on winning every 50-50. After their advantage was established, they spent the second half sitting behind the ball and defending as a dense, compact unit that offered no gaps through the middle. Wide areas were sacrificed safe in the knowledge that Chelsea offer virtually no threat from the flanks due to the absence of an authentic striker and the obsession with walking the ball into the net.
Chelsea have become so predictable that they have almost become a parody of themselves. Almost Wenger-seque in their fundamentalist approach despite all the evidence pointing to a flaw in their methods.
There is much culpability to share around. For starters, many of the players are underperforming. Jorginho is chief among them, the team’s fulcrum unable to cope with the close attention he now habitually receives from the opposition. So discomforted is he that his previously precise passing range has lost it’s dependability and is now more hit and miss. When distribution is your primary asset, that’s a big problem.
Ross Barkley lacks consistency, Marcos Alonso has failed to hit the heights of previous seasons and Willian and Pedro both flutter in and out of form. Meanwhile, with Maurizio Sarri not liking the look of either of his centre forwards, Eden Hazard appears to be required to both create and score from a position where he barely touches the ball.
These players and more were the subject of Sarri’s post-match diatribe in which he claimed that they are “impossible to motivate”. The inexcusably passive start certainly deserved a few home truths though perhaps Sarri needs to look in the mirror before shifting the blame.
To be clear, I’ve no problem with managers calling out players. If players are not following their instructions or translating training ground form into match performances, then a manager has every right to feel frustrated.
But when that same manager plays his best players out of position, persists every single week with others that are playing dreadfully and insists on a system that fails to create any chances yet offers minimal defensive protection, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Here’s an idea. If the players are so mentally weak or technically deficient perhaps try some others rather than field virtually the same team every single week Or maybe tweak the system to suit the players? It’s hardly revolutionary thinking yet Sarri refuses to be swayed. It’s all very well having faith in your methods but it’s pure insanity to keep doing the same thing regardless of the outcome. The best managers admit their flaws and adapt. Sir Alex Ferguson was the master at that but even in the current Premier League environment the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp have shown that they are prepared to shift things around to get the best out of their players.
Sarri was furious after Saturday’s defeat yet they began the game entirely in his image by trying to play far too much football in defensive areas. Arsenal pounced and swung all the early momentum in their favour. The same thing happened in the league defeat at Tottenham so you would have hoped that perhaps Chelsea had learned their lesson. Alas, no.
Chelsea did rally slightly in the second half which indicates that Sarri expressed his displeasure in the interval. That said, there was precious little in the way of tactical advice that was evident on the pitch. More possession, more passes, but absolutely no poke. Much used to be made of Spain and Barcelona’s former style of football that enjoyed unprecedented success, described by some as “death by a thousand passes”. But it’s supposed to be the opposition that dies, not the exponents that wither away. The sooner that Sarri’s Chelsea realise that, the better.
Last week, the Italian mentioned that the time was not yet right to switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. Which begs the question, when is the right time? The current system plainly isn’t working for two main reasons.
Presently, Jorginho is being exposed at the base of midfield but by having someone doing the dirty work alongside him – someone diligent and energetic, preferably somebody of genuine world class quality in that role who revels in disrupting the opposition, I dunno, Kante perhaps – then maybe he would be able to recapture his early season flourish. The extra deep midfielder would also mean that Marcos Alonso could make his forward raids comforted by the fact that one of the midfielders could cover the space left behind him rather leave the unsupervised chasm that opens up whenever he ventures upfield. 4-2-3-1 would make Chelsea a tougher nut to crack while adding width and deploying enough attack-minded players to pose a threat.
As for his comment about motivation, Sarri might have seen his views supported by his two predecessors, given the downturn in mood suffered by both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. Nevertheless, players are hardly going to be motivated if they are instructed to play the same old song when the instrument is so clearly out of tune. And if the players are apathetic then why not replace them with somebody younger and hungrier? Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu won’t lack for motivation yet they have as much chance of starting a league game for Chelsea as I do.
Despite the current doom and gloom, there is still time to right the ship and steer a course to the Champions League. The imminent arrival of Gonzalo Higuaín should hopefully provide the focal point in attack that has been so desperately lacking. And it has the added bonus of allowing Hazard to play where he is most dangerous. Saturday’s defeat and the ensuing fallout also gives Sarri carte blanche to alter his line-up and maybe try the likes of Hudson-Odoi, Ampadu and Emerson or perhaps even seeing if Mateo Kovacic is a better fit in Jorginho’s position.
In theory a top four finish and three trophies are still in the offing. Chelsea might not be playing like a team deserving of silverware at present but the opportunities are still there. By being less cautious and more direct in attack, less passive without the ball and playing at a higher tempo when in possession, Chelsea have the weapons to cause any team problems. But they need to be utilised properly or this season is set to fizzle out in a manner that has, depressingly, become all too familiar.