Monday 17 June 2019

Sarri unlikely to be bothered by the Chelsea soap opera

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. Photo: Reuters

James Lawton

After all the transfer manoeuvrings, the posturing and the smart little agent initiatives, finally it comes down to what it always should.

Which is the task of a coach getting the most out of the players at his disposal.

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp's re-enforced Liverpool look, by some distance, best equipped, both psychologically and in talent, to shape the new season.

Yet, who knows, there might not be a more fascinating place to be than the Emirates Stadium tomorrow when City investigate the early work of Arsenal's new manager Unai Emery. Anfield will also be an intriguing place to be, where Liverpool will no doubt attempt to devour Manuel Pellegrini's West Ham.

What of Huddersfield? Last season they preserved their Premier League status against odds which at times seemed insane. Today they meet the club for whom football rationality, not to mention working decency, might have been dreamed up on some other planet.

Maurizio Sarri, at 59, is in some ways an unlikely occupant of the Chelsea job, which offers all the security of a faulty ejector seat.

He never played professionally, spent most of his coaching career in the nether regions of the Italian game, never won a title, and is, on the face of it, not in the same league as his predecessor Antonio Conti, a serial winner at Juventus and Chelsea, as well as a reviver of an embattled Italian national team.

So why, indeed, is the rough-hewn Sarri's arrival at Stamford Bridge so intriguing?

It is because he is a man of the world, someone who has never acquired the graces - or affectations, perhaps - of a Jose Mourinho.

He worked in banking, where all that he saw was not to instil any heighted sense of the goodness of people. Most crucially, he tends to get on with players who are not instantly recognised in all their potential.

Sarri, it is not difficult to believe, is unlikely to be cut to the bone by the running of Chelsea Football Club.

The various layers of command, the demands of owner Roman Abramovich, they are factors he will separate himself from on the training field and in one-on-one meetings with individual players.

He certainly cannot be discouraged by the club reaction to the carefully orchestrated defection of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid.

Chelsea's record fee of £72m for the flying young Basque Kepa Arrizabalaga was four times the price the then Real coach Zinedine Zidane considered far too high not too long ago.

Most hard judges believe Kepa has the raw ability to finish up the best in the game.

Sarri has also picked up Real's Croatian World Cup notable midfielder Mateo Kovacic to augment N'Golo Kante and his old Napoli dynamo Jorginho.

There are so many taut issues at Chelsea, and not least the mood and perspectives of Eden Hazard and Willian, but amid it all Sarri continues to show the practical instincts of a man who will attempt to do the best job he can with the tools he is given.

That, after all those years of obscurity in the Italian outback of football - broken finally when he won promotion to Serie A for Empoli - was the mark of his work at Napoli.

Twice Napoli finished second to Juventus and in 2017 he was voted Serie A's Coach of the Year. It was an award to a football man who had seen the best in his available resources.

When Argentina superstar Gonzalo Higuain - who had enjoyed in Sarri's home town of Naples hero-worship once enjoyed by Diego Maradona - moved to Juventus, the coach did not insist that club president and movie magnet Aurelio Dw Laurentiis embark on some compensatory splurge.

Instead, he looked for new ways to use available talent and, most strikingly, the moving of the Belgium wide attacker Dries Mertens into a more central role.

The result was goals and a surge of reputation which did not suffer in the World Cup.

Sarri, no doubt, is not the most arresting figure. A compulsive smoker who eschews the elegant tailoring of so many of his contemporaries, he has the demeanour of a survivor, an in-fighter who will take whatever is given to him.

His language can be rough. On one occasion he made strong remarks towards a woman reporter whose line of questioning he didn't warm to. Another time, Roberto Mancini accused Sarri of homophobic remarks.

To all of which, Sarri denied he was either sexist or homophobic, shrugged and said he would get on with his job until told otherwise.

What is clear enough is that Chelsea have not acquired a man who is made easily squeamish by the kind of football turmoil they have tended to specialise in over the 15 years of the oligarch's reign.

Carlo Ancelotti was fired in a back corridor almost precisely a year since winning the double. Claudio Ranieri didn't make it to the starting gate. World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari was summarily dismissed, Roberto Di Matteo felt the hand on his shoulder months after winning the Champions League. And so, it has gone, from Mourinho to an extremely agitated Conte.

Whatever his results, starting at Huddersfield today, there is one certainty about the immediate future and style of Maurizio Sarri. Whether he leaves a winner, however Chelsea categorise that status, or a plain loser, he will blow a smoke ring and reflect that this is the football life.

And who would know this better than Sarri? Chelsea is his 19th club in 28 years.

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