Chelsea's good week eases the pressure on Maurizio Sarri, though he's far from safe
LONDON -- Against all the odds, it's been a pretty positive week for Maurizio Sarri.
Ten days ago he looked on the brink, the sounds of Chelsea fans telling him just what they thought of "Sarriball" ringing in his ears. They were 10 points behind Tottenham and preparing for a thrashing in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, who famously beat them 6-0 on Feb. 10. Now they're five points back from Spurs having beaten them on Wednesday and played pretty well despite losing on penalties to Manchester City in that final. Oh, and the general consensus is they handled the Kepa Arrizabalaga snafu as well as could be expected.
Everything's rosy, then? Well, sort of. Sunday's 2-1 win was a narrow victory against the second-worst team in the Premier League and could well have been a draw had a desperately tight injury-time offside decision gone the other way. In other words, not the sort of performance to dismiss all doubts about a manager and declare this National Sarri Day.
Still, the victory for Chelsea -- in particular the way they played in the first half -- shows why he persists with this style. Of course, had they not won it would have been evidence that his is a toothless style based on pointless passing and sterile domination. Or, put another way, this result probably doesn't tell us much that we didn't already know about the viability of his style in the Premier League.
At its best, Sarri's style is one that aims to control the game, the equivalent of a boxer keeping an opponent at bay with a succession of solid jabs. It worked here to a point, but it also exposed Chelsea's collective chin to a roundhouse knockout punch, which might have been delivered by a better or luckier opponent. Chelsea should have put the game out of sight in the early stages of the second half. They battered their opponents with the determination of a man trying to knock down a wall, but after 15 minutes, it became clear they were doing it with a foam hammer. And then, as has happened a few times this season, they retreated, seemed to lose their impetus and Fulham were unable to find a way through.
"We didn't kill the match, then in the last 30 minutes, we were really tired," Sarri said. "Physically and mentally. It was a normal reaction after the last seven days."
Another significant factor was Kepa Arrizabalaga who, after a near-calamitous first-half error, made some fine saves. As if to prove that the "misunderstanding" of last week was all in the past, Sarri didn't even tell the goalkeeper individually that he was back in the team: he found out two hours before kickoff, when the rest of the side did.
"With another man, I could have done it in another way," Sarri said. "With him, I know him very well."
It was at least symbolic that Chelsea's goals came from two of Sarri's favourites from his past. Gonzalo Higuain scored 67 goals in two seasons under the manager at Napoli and Jorginho is virtually an extension of Sarri's personality, like he is beaming his own version of football onto the pitch from inside his head. And, the first Chelsea goal was Sarri's football as it is meant to be: lots of quick passing, a low cross from the flank and Higuain hammering home at the near post. They nearly scored an identical goal later on in the half. You wonder how many more they would have scored earlier in the season had Alvaro Morata not been a walking existential crisis.
Jorginho's goal was less typical of the style but more so of the player, a shot caressed into the top corner like he was picking out a teammate. You can't really score with a sideways pass; this was the next best thing. To hear him cheered heartily when he was later substituted was a reminder of the fickle nature of football fandom; it wasn't so long ago that he was the target of the fans' frustrations instead.
"I'm very, very happy for him," Sarri said. "But my opinion about Jorginho is the same. He's a very great player, one of the most important in Europe in that position."
This was always going to be a defining few days for Sarri, whether positive or negative. It has gone in his favour this time, but these are fine lines. What if Ryan Sessegnon's late strike on Sunday hadn't been disallowed? What if Kieran Trippier hadn't donated them a goal on Wednesday? What if Kepa hadn't reacted in the way he has this week?
This week, the fine lines went Chelsea's way and the results of the past week mean they're most definitely one of four teams competing for two remaining Champions League spots. "I said after Tottenham, we were trying to involve them in the fight," Sarri said. "And I think that now they are involved. So, better two teams for four places than three for one place."
They made heavy work of it, but after this victory, all seems well at Chelsea. For now. Still, if this season has taught us nothing else, that can all change very quickly indeed.