It’s been a very bad week for Chelsea FC, with anything and everything that could go wrong, going wrong. They were eliminated from the FA Cup and beaten on penalties by Manchester City in the League Cup Final. A transfer ban from FIFA was handed down, barring The Blues from the next two transfer windows. In saying that, the most damaging of all was the defiance of the coach from goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga at Wembley.
It seems Arrizabalaga’s refusal to be substituted in the dying minutes of the League Cup Final has fatally undermined manager Maurizio Sarri. Having seen the goalkeeper twice go down with cramp, Sarri decided to withdraw Arrizabalaga in favour of Willy Cabalero, a man who famously saved three penalties in the 2016 Final. However, Arrizabalaga refused to leave the pitch, sparking extraordinary scenes at Wembley and creating one of the most infamous moments in history.
Ironically Sarri had coached a good final until his goalkeeper’s moment of petulance. Having been beaten convincingly by City two weeks ago, Sarri opted for a containing game at Wembley and it almost paid off with Chelsea looking the more dangerous team as the game wore on. It was a thumb in the nose to Sarri’s critics, who’ve often pointed at Sarri’s lack of a plan b away from his preferred ‘Sarriball’. After Sunday, Sarri must now feel he’s back to square one.
However, it seems the end is near for Sarri. The man brought in to bring flowing football to Stamford Bridge looks set to depart before he’s even seen out a season. After a wonderful start that saw Chelsea go unbeaten for the first 12 games of the season, Chelsea have sunk to sixth place, been eliminated from the FA Cup and left Wembley empty-handed on Sunday.
Change is in the air
Sarri’s situation is par for the course for managers in the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea. Since buying the club from near bankruptcy in 2003 Abramovich’s message has been simple: win the Premier League or the Champions League or you won’t be back next season, indeed only Jose Mourinho has managed to avoid the sack following a season that delivered neither of club football’s biggest prizes.
With a transfer ban set to take effect this summer, whoever the Chelsea manager is next season will need time. Veterans Gary Cahill, Olivier Giroud and Pedro are expected be moved on. Star man Eden Hazard is likely to seek a move to Real Madrid. Even if the transfer ban is overturned, the early days of Abramovich as Chelsea’s sugar daddy are long gone. Having transformed the club and brought a glittering era to Stamford Bridge, the Russian owner now expects Chelsea to function as a business. Chelsea can compete at the top of transfer marker but they no longer dominate it.
Part of Abramovich’s reinvention of Chelsea has been the creation of Chelsea’s academy, who have become the dominant youth team in English football over the last decade, winning 7 of the last 9 FA Youth Cups. But with the demand for instant success for the senior team, pushing the youngsters into the first team has been a persistent stumbling block.
Recent summers have seen promising academy players such as Nathan Ake, Nathaniel Chalobah, Dominic Solanke and Bertrand Traore sold on to balance the books against big money signings. If Chelsea are banned from the transfer market for a year, that policy needs to change and some of Chelsea’s 42 players currently on loan at other clubs will return to Stamford Bridge.
Of those returning players Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Jake Clarke-Salter could make a first team impact next season. Chelsea also need to make the likes of Emerson, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi central to their new team.
It’s going to be a particularly important summer for Hudson-Odoi, who was talked out of a move to Bayern Munich by Chelsea Director Marina Granovskaia. It kept him at the club, but the young star has struggled for Premier League minutes under Sarri. In his short time at Chelsea, Sarri has shown little interest in the academy, meaning Chelsea’s transfer ban doesn’t necessarily make him more important to them.
With £60 million signing Christian Pulisic joining in June this will be a summer of change for Chelsea. How they manage it will have far-reaching consequences for the club than what may happen in the immediate future.