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January 22, 2019

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Blues blame game: Sarri must face up to own failings

Maurizio Sarri has decided to go down a dangerous road by using a post-match news conference to criticize the attitude and character of his Chelsea players.

Memories were suddenly revived of a TV interview that Jose Mourinho gave after a game in December 2015, accusing the Chelsea team of “betraying” him. Mourinho was fired a few days later.

Indeed, when the dust finally settles on the result that prompted Sarri’s outburst — the 0-2 loss at Arsenal in the English Premier League on Saturday — the Italian might do well to look at his own failings instead of heaping the blame on his underperforming players.

He is the one playing the world’s best defensive midfielder, N’Golo Kante, out of position; he is the one deploying one of the world’s most lethal wide forwards, Eden Hazard, as a center striker often playing with his back to goal.

He is the one not willing to adapt when he sees midfield playmaker Jorginho — the on-field personification of the so-called “Sarri-ball” approach — getting increasingly over-run.

And he is the one fielding a defensive system seemingly not suited to the players. In Sarri’s four-man backline is David Luiz, a center back better as a sweeper, and Marcos Alonso, a left back much more effective as an attacking wing back.

At a time when Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and now Manchester United are playing exciting and attacking football, Chelsea is playing a ponderous, predictable and easy-to-defend style reminiscent of United under Louis van Gaal. Chelsea has scored just eight goals in its last nine games.

Worryingly for Chelsea and its fans, Sarri doesn’t seem willing to change.

It was after a comprehensive loss to Arsenal in September 2016 that Antonio Conte ripped up Chelsea’s lineup and formation, with a switch from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 sparking a 13-match winning run that took the London club to the EPL title.

Sarri is wedded to a 4-3-3 formation with Jorginho at the base of the midfield, directing the play and the tempo. There’s no chance of Kante reverting back to his best position and the midfield often appears rigid, with Jorginho not yet attuned to the often frenetic pace of English soccer after his offseason move from Napoli.

Where a change is likely to come is up front with Gonzalo Higuain reportedly close to joining from AC Milan, which would see the Argentina striker link up again with Sarri after they were together at Napoli. That would mean Hazard moving back out wide, where he is more dangerous, and running at defenders.

Still, Sarri is gambling on a striker in the 31-year-old Higuain who, like Jorginho, has never previously played in England and has hardly been in great form. He has scored eight times in 22 appearances this season.

It seems a short-term fix for Chelsea’s biggest problem, coming at a time when 18-year-old prodigy Callum Hudson-Odoi might be on his way to Bayern Munich because of a lack of game time.

Time will tell if Sarri’s stinging rebuke of his players has his desired effect. He’ll hope the first signs come on Thursday in the second leg of Chelsea’s English League Cup semifinal against Tottenham, which leads 1-0.

World-class and international players like Hazard, Kante, Cesar Azpilicueta and Willian might not like their professionalism being questioned, though. Their reaction will be telling.


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