If the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, starts for Chelsea against Spurs on Wednesday, it will confirm what we have long suspected about player power at Stamford Bridge.
Let’s be quite clear about this. Kepa is lucky that his contract was not torn up after openly defying his manager Maurizio Sarri and refusing to be substituted in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. Those of us who have been watching football for half a century have never seen anything like it. It was shambolic, amateurish and so unfair on Sarri given his current shaky predicament at the club.
The goalkeeper acted like a spoilt kid in an Under-8 game, and his claim that it was all a “misunderstanding” is frankly laughable. Kepa had twice gone down suffering from cramp and Sarri wanted to replace him with Willy Caballero as the penalty shoot-out loomed.
The beleaguered manager’s thinking was very sound here, remembering how Caballero’s career highlight in England was saving three penalties in a League Cup Final shoot-out in his Manchester City days. There could be no “misunderstanding” since Sarri was waving wildly and Caballero was standing, stripped for action, right beside him. It was very clear: Kepa gesticulated angrily that he was refusing to come off while his manager looked like he wanted to walk out of the stadium in disgust.
Already, attempts are being made at Chelsea to muddy the water over this, presumably because hard-nosed economics suggest Chelsea need their costly but temperamental No.1 for a crucial run-in. And, inevitably, some have used the incident to suggest that Sarri’s lack of authority over his squad was laid bare for all to see.
Really? Which manager has any real authority at Chelsea given the way the empire is run by Roman Abramovich? Eleven managers have come on and gone on his watch and in recent times, it has been very clear that a truculent and difficult dressing room has the power to get rid of any boss the players do not like.
If Sarri goes, you could reasonably argue that the current group will have cost three managers their jobs, remembering the fall-outs with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte.
So what should happen now?
For a start, Kepa could not complain if he were fired or demoted. But he won’t be, of course. He cost over £70 million and Chelsea do not want to take a loss on their sizable investment. There is some recourse for Sarri, in that he could bench the club’s top goalkeeper, but if he does not do that vs. Tottenham in midweek, he will be fatally undermined in the eyes of every other player at the club. The message will go out that you can ignore anything the boss says and get away with it. So Sarri has to come out fighting.
In essence, Sarri has to say the club “back me or sack me.” After only six months, Chelsea should give Sarri the chance to show he can produce the sort of team that saw Napoli score 318 goals in three seasons with him at the helm.
Has he been too stubborn and inflexible? Yes, possibly. But there were tactical tweaks to “Sarri-ball” at Wembley, offering a better midfield shield and keeping Manchester City out for two hours. This was not the performance of a team that has stopped playing for its manager.
Chelsea are still in the hunt for a top four place and are among the favourites to win the Europa League. So where is the sense in sacking Sarri? And who would replace him at this critical stage in the season?
Whatever Sarri does regarding his own job, this next phase of the season has to be encountered without Kepa Arrizabalaga. He has to realise that what he did at Wembley was outrageous and scandalous, and that there will be a heavy price to pay. A slap on the wrist and an attempt to keep this all “in house” will not wash.
If Sarri ducks this major issue and continue to toe the party line, he’ll be gone soon enough.