F*** Sarriball? Chelsea manager leaves a winner after year of utter turmoil

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Maurizio Sarri has finally departed Stamford Bridge after a toxic, yet successful year which ended with him silencing his critics in Baku

Mesmerised, Maurizio Sarri stared fixatedly at his Europa League gold medal as he ended a turbulent – yet successful – season by leading Chelsea to Europa League glory.

That is the image that the football world will most associate with Sarri from his brief spell at Chelsea.

The 4-1 thumping of Arsenal in Baku meant he had achieved everything he was asked for from owner Roman Abramovich upon joining the club in the summer of 2018. He had already secured Champions League football by finishing third in the league (earning €50m/£44m extra revenue in the process) and reached two major cup finals – also losing unluckily on penalties to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup showpiece.

However, these achievements only tell a small part of the Sarri story.

In the 15 years that Abramovich has been at Stamford Bridge – during which he has appointed 14 temporary or permanent managers - never before has the Chelsea fanbase been so bitterly divided over their coach.

At times the environment was mutinous as large sections of stadium-going fans regularly chanted abuse against Sarri and called for him to be sacked.

The Italian – who arrived from Napoli – was criticised for his stubbornness tactically, his reluctance to use academy products in the first team and for not understanding the Chelsea traditions. With it widely accepted that star man Eden Hazard was leaving at the end of the season and that Chelsea were set for a transfer ban, fans feared for both their club’s present and future.

The season had initially started so well. Brought in to revolutionise the club’s tactics and make them more pleasing on the eye, he immediately demanded a high-press together with possession-based football – the arrival of his favourite player Jorginho for £57 million key to this approach.

An 18-game unbeaten start to the campaign gave everyone hope. The term 'Sarriball' was created and used positively to describe his Pep Guardiola-influenced style of play.

Soon, however, that term would be weaponised against a manager who many locals saw as an outsider due to his lack of interest in both media duties and fan opinion.

"I think it has been unfortunate for Sarri himself, everyone has come up with this ‘Sarriball’ term, but I am not sure I have ever heard him actually milk that one or make it his own," Lampard told Goal in March.

Maurizio Sarri Chelsea

"I think he is just trying to win football games and he has brought in players who want to play the way he wants to play. Everyone has become a little bit focused on that fact. I think he is a very good manager."

History had already shown that the self-proclaimed “dreamer” would not change his philosophy – and this proved to be the case even when results took a turn for the worse in the winter.

Chelsea embarked on a difficult run where they won only seven out of 14 league games. Particular lowlights were a 4-0 away loss to Bournemouth - the club’s heaviest Premier League defeat since 1996 - and a 6-0 thumping at Manchester City, their worst league result since 1991.

Suddenly, qualification for the Champions League was thrown into doubt. Fans started calling for Sarri’s head – and things got worse when they lost 2-0 at home to Manchester United in the FA Cup. "F*** Sarriball" was sung loud and clear at Stamford Bridge.

As part of the broader discontent, Sarri was ridiculed for his handling of Callum Hudson-Odoi. A lack of playing time for the 18-year-old had seen the wonderkid hand in a January transfer request to join Bayern Munich in a £35m deal which never transpired.

Callum Hudson-Odoi Maurizio Sarri Chelsea

In the FA Cup loss to Man Utd, Davide Zappacosta was introduced as substitute instead of Hudson-Odoi, leading to further jeers from fans. Jorginho was booed as a symbol of Sarri’s football as locals felt patronised by their manager’s insistence on playing the Italo-Brazilian in N’Golo Kante’s preferred role at the base of the midfield.

With Sarri on the brink of the sack, ex-Blues assistant coach Steve Holland waited in the wings to become caretaker manager.

However, a brilliant Carabao Cup final performance against Man City – a game Chelsea could and perhaps should have won – arrived just in time to save Sarri.

The Italian handled the fallout from Kepa Arrizabalaga’s refusal to be substituted during extra time of that game brilliantly and with class.

Kepa Arrizabalaga Chelsea 2018-19

Chelsea's form and football then improved in the closing weeks of the season, culminating in a third-place finish in the Premier League and the Europa League triumph.

Achievements that shouldn't be underestimated given the chaos that Sarri inherited last summer, when he arrived just over a fortnight before the start of the campaign with no time for proper pre-season planning.

Sarri has now taken over at Juventus – a move that will be hugely unpopular in his home city of Naples – with Chelsea legend Frank Lampard tipped to succeed him at Stamford Bridge.

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Lampard would be a popular choice with fans after he scored a record-breaking 211 goals for Chelsea during his playing days. But his inexperience after one season as Derby County manager makes any such move a gamble.

Nevertheless, Sarri leaves Chelsea with his head held high. Despite opposition from local fans – and what some perceived as a lack of support from the club during all this toxicity – he fulfilled his objectives and lifted a European trophy.

After winning a Europa League medal – and staring affectionately at it – his final act was poetic. He had warmed the hearts of all his defenders and silenced his haters.

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