Maurizio Sarri confounded his critics by naming Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi to Chelsea’s starting XI for West Ham’s visit to Stamford Bridge. Once the game started, though, Sarri’s motivations and thought processes were as cloudy as ever.
Seasoned Sarri-tologists on social media were beside themselves at seeing Chelsea’s two English youngsters start two consecutive Premier League games. Once the game began, there were clear signs Sarri’s starters were keen to assert themselves over a West Ham team renowned for the occasional upset. With Javier Hernandez on the opposition side, there was even more reason to expect the worst.
We’ve seen many times during what has been, for some, an underwhelming succession of bore-fests, how Chelsea labour to beat teams they ought to defeat without breaking sweat. It’s harsh to suggest that either Sarri or the players are not attempting to win, but time and again the team have flattered to deceive.
Chelsea played good football throughout the first half but whether we were seeing so-called “Sarri-ball” or just watching a team playing – like a team – was difficult to say. West Ham were caught out as Chelsea ran with the ball at their feet rather than relentlessly passing themselves out of ideas.
An exquisite Eden Hazard run gave Chelsea the lead midway through the half. Hazard was at his imperious best as he jinked his way through the defence before firing past Lukasz Fabianski.
As first halves go, it was right up there in terms of the football Chelsea played. The key for Sarri was seeing his team maintain that kind of form over a full 90 minutes. Against Everton, the Italian claimed the first 45 minutes, despite not scoring, were the best football Chelsea had played. In the second half, they conceded two goals.
Having established a lead this time out, and despite creating good chances, the second goal would not come. After the break, Manuel Pellegrini took the prolific Hernandez off in an attempt to outsmart Sarri, and it nearly worked. Like that Everton game, Chelsea found themselves on the back foot.
With a bit more luck, West Ham would have had their equalizer.
The fact that Chelsea were able to see out the game, score another goal and leapfrog the two north London teams into third place in the Premier League was a tribute to the renowned never-say-die attitude that courses through the club.
This wasn’t Maurizio Sarri’s infamous style of football at work. This was not the result of a regista dictating the play and bypassing the opposition. This was Sarri finally accepting there may be another way to play the beautiful game other than his own personal flawed ideology.
To win a game of football you have to play the best players available that will work as a team. There were areas in the game where that didn’t work, but if he can at last build some kind of spine and rotate around that, then all may not be lost during these final games.
Ultimately, it may be too little too late. But if he can achieve Champions League football he has a chance of still being around for a second season.