Aside from Real Madrid, the pressure on Chelsea managers to achieve immediate success is effectively unrivalled in European football. Maurizio Sarri is the latest in the long line of coaches who’ve had to temper this expectation during Roman Abramovich’s reign at the West London club.
For England’s top teams, there are three domestic and one continental trophy up for grabs every season and, with the ruthless “fire and hire” culture in the Premier League, not winning any can sound the death knell for even the most ambitious coaches. Ultimately, Chelsea managers have to pay their way through a season and the only currency that the club’s hierarchy accepts is success.
Since a trophy-less season is akin to failure in the current climate, laying down a marker in his debut season will be top of Sarri’s checklist for a successful tenure. With Chelsea having to play in Europe’s secondary cup competition, Europa League success could be the foundation on which Sarri can build his legacy at Stamford Bridge.
Playing the Hand That’s Dealt
For a club that’s built its reputation as a “top-four” club for the last 15 years, it’s unfortunate that Chelsea has to suffer the ignominy of not competing in UEFA’s flagship competition this season. The gravitas that being in the Champions League has when trying to attract players cannot be underestimated, and is sure to have affected the clubs summer recruitment. Also, with stars like Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois seemingly angling for moves away, another season outside of the big time adds another level of difficulty to keeping the clubs more ambitious players.
Having said that, the fact is that Chelsea must deal with their new reality and make the most of the situation that they find themselves in. Hopefully, the lure of playing under Sarri, one of Europe’s most renowned tacticians, will help to attract the level of talent that fans have become accustomed to during Abramovich’s tenure as owner. With the clubs first summer recruit, Jorginho, already showcasing his worth in their pre-season friendlies, and links with moves for top-class talents like Wilfried Zaha, the lack of Champions League football may not be as bad as first thought. Also, with the club seemingly playing hardball when it comes to selling players, there is a chance that both Hazard and Courtois may still be in SW6 come the new season.
Learning From Past Mistakes
The main criticism was levelled at Sarri during his time as head coach of Napoli was the lack of tangible success he achieved. In his 3 years in Naples, his team became the “nearly-men” of Serie A, where they consistently finished 2nd or 3rd behind seemingly perennial champions, Juventus. Now he’s at a club with greater financial resources, it’s his chance to add trophy winner to his managerial CV.
His reputation during his last season at Napoli was somewhat tarnished by the way he sent out weakened teams in the latter stages of the Europa League and Coppa Italia, in order to maintain their lead at the top of Serie A. These risks were subsequently found to be futile as Juventus pipped them to the title.
It is likely he has learnt his lesson from that failure and is unlikely to repeat that kind of behaviour whilst at Chelsea. Also, there is a definite feeling that doing something like that wouldn’t be tolerated by the club in any case. The expectation from the club’s point of view is that he will rotate where necessary to ensure the team can compete on all fronts.
Laying Down A Marker
In my view, trying to better the consistency of a team like Manchester City over a 38-game season may be an unachievable objective for a team like Chelsea, who are currently in a transitional phase. Therefore, a respectable top-four finish would be an ideal outcome in the Premier League. Chelsea would be better off targeting cup competitions, the domestic cups are a good place to start but asserting your dominance on the European stage is ideal for a statement of intent. Especially for a manager’s first season.
Overall, if Chelsea win a trophy under Sarri during his inaugural season then it will be considered a success. However, for it to mean anything, the Europa League is an obvious target. As the 3rd place teams from each Champions League group are entered into its round of 32 phase, it’s impossible to predict who Chelsea may face. But, if history can be relied on, most of them will be eminently beatable and may become a stepping stone to another Chelsea success story in Europe.
The Europa League is seen by many as inferior to the Champions League but ask any Chelsea fan whether it felt like that when Ivanovic’s 93rd-minute winner looped over Artur’s head on that historic night in Amsterdam…