Football's odd couple of Chelsea and Maurizio Sarri know only a trophy can strengthen their bond

Matt Law
Sarri's unpolished approach has been a dramatic departure from the smartly turned-out Antonio Conte - Action Images via Reuters

Industrial. That was the word being used to describe Maurizio Sarri inside Chelsea during the early days of the relationship between football’s odd couple.

Gone was Antonio Conte, his Dolce and Gabbana tailored suits, suspiciously well styled hair and perfectly polished black shoes. And in was an Italian of a very different sort, who munches on cigarette butts, looks like he got dressed in the Stamford Bridge club shop and is overwhelmed by superstition.

Sarri has not been seen in a suit since his unveiling as head coach. His down-to-earth approach struck a chord with the Naples port workers who packed into the dilapidated San Paolo stadium and revelled in landing blows on the traditionally more affluent Northern trio of Juventus, who Sarri’s Napoli team finished second to, AC Milan and Inter.

But it has not gone down so well on the King’s Road, an area of London synonymous with fashion, where personalities have always been cherished and moneyed folk back winners over philosophers. Sarri goes into Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal still looking for his first trophy.

Conte was famed for his work ethic, but was also acutely aware of how he came across, both to the Chelsea fans and the outside world. His wild celebrations immediately captured hearts and travelling supporters would delight in him going to the away end to thank them for their backing with an over-the-top double fist pump.

One of Sarri’s many superstitions dictates he cannot step on to the playing turf, which stopped him taking part in the traditional end of season lap of appreciation or marching over to the away end after the final Premier League game of the season at Leicester City.

There may have been bickering going on in the background, but Chelsea were happy to feed the affection from the terraces towards Conte by marking their Premier League title triumph with the release of his personalised emoji.

By the time he was sacked in July last year, having lifted the FA Cup, Conte’s relationship with the board had deteriorated to the point where the announcement was made over just 61 words, but the supporters remained grateful.

Should the Blues win the Europa League, at the end of a season in which they have also qualified for the Champions League through finishing third and lost a Carabao Cup final to Manchester City, there will still be debate over whether or not it was because of Sarri or in spite of him.

Those who sung ‘f--- Sarri-ball’ and chanted for him to be sacked at Cardiff City at the end of March may have parked their dissatisfaction, but it has not been eradicated by finishing above Tottenham Hotspur and booking a final against Arsenal.

It was perhaps instructive that Sarri was barely seen and not heard at all on the post-season trip to Boston, arranged by owner Roman Abramovich, having criticised the timing of the charity friendly.

Sarri criticised the timing of Chelsea's end-of-season friendly in Boston, in which Ruben Loftus-Cheek was injured Credit: CHELSEA FC

Social climbers would not have allowed a stomach bug to prevent them attending an evening at the house of Robert Kraft, friend of Abramovich and owner or New England Revolution. But Sarri stayed on his sick bed and has since revealed that he and Abramovich spoke for just “one minute” in Boston to discuss Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s injury. Such a short exchange does not point towards a close working relationship.

The split of opinion in the stands seems to have made its way into the dressing-room. For all of Sarri’s disciples, who include David Luiz and Jorginho, there are also the non-believers who have questioned his stubborn approach, track record and superstitions.

Captain Gary Cahill, a player who has won every club honour with Chelsea, was frozen out to the surprise of many. While Victor Moses, a popular member of the squad who had been pivotal in the Premier League title and FA Cup successes, was often left out of small-sided training games before joining Fenerbahce on loan.

Marcos Alonso, a Premier League and FA Cup winner, has been asked to operate in a back four by Sarri and struggled with the move from the left-wing back role that had suited him so well.

“I started very well,” said Alonso. “Then the manager asked me for something different. It’s not easy of course not. Managers are different, they have different aspects of tactics. He wanted to change the team, not just me. He wanted to change the way we start playing.”

Conte could always point towards a top-level playing career for Juvetus and Italy when asked to justify his no holds barred approach, whether it be on the training pitch, sidelines or behind the scenes.

Conte turned Chelsea into title winners but soon fell out with the club's hierarchy Credit: AFP

Sarri divided his time as an amateur footballer with a career in banking, before moving into coaching with Chelsea representing his biggest challenge to date. Despite his relative success with Napoli, there is a feeling that the 60-year-old has been learning on the job with players who have all won more than him.

“It’s never easy in the first year, to come to a new country, a new league, new football, new culture,” said Alonso. “It is many different things. The gaffer is still learning, he was not a football player either, so he is learning a lot this year.”

Asked whether Sarri’s background made it strange to take orders from him, Alonso added: “It can be different, but we have to be professional and take on whatever he asks us for. He is different.”

The quirks and idiosyncrasies that were endearing for the first few months have gradually worn thin over the course of a long and, at times, chaotic season.

It was on Chelsea’s in-house television station that Jorginho revealed: “He won’t touch the match ball ever. Even if we’re losing, the ball goes out and we need to get the ball back as fast as possible, he won’t go near it. No way, he won’t touch it.”

And yet Sarri, who barely had a pre-season in which to prepare, has performed better than Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino did in their first seasons at their respective clubs and has promised improvement if he is given a second campaign.

Sarri and Jorginho had little time to implement the Napoli style before Chelsea's season began Credit: ACTION IMAGES

A third place Premier League finish, which clinched Champions League qualification, and Carabao Cup and Europa League finals have maintained Sarri’s reputation in Italy.

Juventus and Roma have both shown an interest in him and the feeling is either club could take him back to Italy if they agree to pay Chelsea around £5million in compensation.

Jorginho was scapegoated by some for following Sarri from Napoli to Stamford Bridge, but there has been enough in the final weeks to suggest the midfielder will be better next term and Sarri’s loyalty could be admired as much as it has been scorned.

Just as he took in the stray dog he found wandering the streets of Naples in the early hours of one morning, Sarri has refused to give up on Jorginho who has faced non-stop accusations of being treated as a teacher’s pet.

Sarri’s greater use of injured duo Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi over the run-in also offered some evidence that he would be prepared to take a serious look at Reece James, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham.

But it is hard to know how a man who cares so little for what people think of him will start to build a bond with those who want to see some personality with the industry. A first trophy would at least offer encouragement that the philosopher can also be a winner.