Why Chelsea fans, the media & even Sarri himself can learn from Guardiola criticism

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The Italian coach has been unfairly and prematurely maligned, just as the Manchester City boss was during his difficult first season in England

Not long into Pep Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City, a disgruntled supporter told a fan TV channel that the club should have hired Diego Simeone instead.

It was not a common view among the fan base, but that particular post-match frustration goes to show that the Catalan was far from universally popular in his first few months in charge at the Etihad Stadium, and certainly not safe from knee-jerk reactions.

His decision to replace Joe Hart with Claudio Bravo rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way, and was often dragged up when results did not go City’s way.

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And not just on the terraces. As results tailed off, the majority view in the press was that Guardiola’s possession-based football simply would not work in the Premier League.

In the wake of some heavy defeats he was accused of arrogance, stubbornness, of making no progress, and of creating problems for himself.

In that sense, the parallels between Guardiola’s first season at City and Maurizio Sarri’s stuttering start to life at Chelsea are remarkable. 

Given the success Guardiola has gone on to have, you would think that the principle of ‘once bitten, twice shy’ would apply, but it hasn’t.

Both managers want to play attractive, intricate and attacking football but their biggest problem is that when results do not follow, their ideas, so often at odds with traditional English footballing philosophy, are not just scrutinised but misunderstood.

Guardiola quote

“Sometimes when it’s not going well, they say we have to change,” Guardiola exclusively told Goal last year. “No, we have to improve.”

That is exactly the situation Sarri now finds himself in, amid calls for a ‘Plan B’.

"Why?” the Italian asked recently. “First, I want to do very well the Plan A. I don’t want to change something that isn’t working, I want to see it play well and then we look to change something.”

For whatever reason, it is usually overlooked that these styles of play take some time to get to grips with, and particularly if the squad is not ideally suited to it. For Guardiola’s problems with ageing full-backs, see Sarri’s creaking forward line.

Only now that Gonzalo Higuain has replaced the regrettably out-of-sorts Alvaro Morata can we start to get some idea of how good Chelsea can be, not least because Eden Hazard can now be moved back out to the left.

That should put a stop to questions about Hazard’s role but will not cure all of Sarri’s problems.

The Italian actually had a Guardiola-esque goalkeeping dilemma of his own last summer, but was helped by Thibaut Courtois’ contract situation and desire to join Real Madrid. Instead, the rod he has made for his own back has been N’Golo Kante’s role.

The World Cup winner has been moved from his usual position at the back of midfield to make way for Jorginho, one of Sarri’s key summer signings. The idea behind that is to install a deep-lying playmaker capable of dictating Chelsea’s entire new approach, both on and off the ball.

Guardiola wanted Jorginho to take his City side to the next level in terms of passing and pressing but instead that is his role at Stamford Bridge. Kante is a world-class player at what he does, but he does not do what Jorginho can.

It is understandable that so many fans and pundits have scratched their heads at Kante being moved into a role that makes him less effective, given he has been such a fundamental part of trophy-winning teams with Leicester, Chelsea and France.

But the fundamental reason is that of all the things he can do, he cannot be the deep-lying midfielder Sarri needs.

Sarri quote

The simple answer for many seems to be, ‘Well, get rid of Sarri then’, and given that the Italian is not thriving as new Chelsea managers usually do, and is not playing the type of reactive football the club are used to, that response is understandable.

But has Guardiola’s success not taught us to be a little more patient with new ideas?

Give him time to coach his ideas, to bring in players suitable for the system, to get Plan A right, and then, let’s judge.

That said, Sarri should take heed of the Catalan’s first season, too. For all the issues with player positions and Plan B’s, Sarri’s biggest problem was going public with his very clear dissatisfaction with his players.

When he said after the Arsenal game that his Chelsea players are “extremely difficult to motivate”, it laid bare to the world just how frustrated he is in his attempts to change the culture of the club.

That opened him up to a whirlwind of criticism and cast him on one side of the debate and the players – many of whom have won trophies for Chelsea – on the other. That was not wise.

Guardiola has always done things his way behind the scenes at the Etihad Stadium but he very rarely turned the public spotlight on his players’ willingness – or otherwise – to do what he wanted them to, and certainly not in anything like the terms Sarri did.

Ultimately he was given the time, patience and funding show that his way can work. The rest is history that we can all learn from – even Sarri.

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