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27 February 2019

Maurizio Sarri: How the “Taliban trainer” lost control

The Chelsea manager’s name has become a punchline for abject powerlessness. 

By Patrick Maguire

As Theresa May’s authority remorselessly drains, suitable analogies are increasingly hard to find. Enter Maurizio Sarri. After the Chelsea manager’s side were beaten 6-0 by Manchester City in the Premier League on 10 February, the restless maverick contrived to make the 2019 Carabao Cup final a forgettable one.

For 119 long, goalless minutes, he succeeded. A confident Chelsea smothered the attacking line that had so effortlessly humiliated them in Manchester, and only lost on penalties. But all anybody will remember is the 120th minute, when Sarri tried and failed to substitute Kepa Arrizabalaga, his 24-year-old goalkeeper, before turning puce, tearing open his tracksuit and marching down the Wembley tunnel.

Although he would return to see his team lose – and, with preternatural calm, insist that the whole episode was a mere “misunderstanding” – the damage was done. After less than a year at Stamford Bridge, Sarri is on borrowed time.

The incident summed up the Italian’s fate: less a manager than a hostage, with no authority over a Chelsea dressing room whose recalcitrance would make the heavily unionised workforces of the 1970s blush. Kepa’s name will become a byword for insubordination. Sarri’s has become a punchline for abject powerlessness. “Theresa May,” the Times columnist Rachel Sylvester wrote on 26 February, “is the political equivalent of Maurizio Sarri.”

It is not a comparison either that Sarri (a lifelong socialist) or Chelsea’s chairman, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, would have expected upon his appointment as the club’s 11th manager in as many years in July 2018. He arrived at Stamford Bridge from Napoli without a trophy to show for his 28 years in management. What he did have, however, was a fluid, attractive footballing philosophy: “Sarri-ball”. His teams are marshalled in a rigid, compact 4-3-3. They press relentlessly, passing briskly and moving the ball up the pitch as swiftly as possible.

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Sarri’s appointment seemed at odds with Abramovich’s manifest lack of patience and appetite for instant success. With Chelsea losing four of their last six matches, and Champions League qualification increasingly doubtful, fans have taken to singing “Fuck Sarri-ball” and booing Jorginho, the £57m Italian playmaker the manager brought with him from Napoli. Chelsea’s absentee owner, meanwhile, is without a UK visa and seems increasingly detached. A mutinous squad has filled the vacuum.

But just why is Sarri struggling? One answer is that he is an oddity in a game that has become the purest expression of globalised, winner-takes-all capitalism. Born in Bagnoli, an industrial neighbourhood of Naples, in 1959, Sarri’s rise to Premier League management was unconventional. His Tuscan father, Amerigo, had been a failed professional cyclist and earned a living as a steelworker. He instilled in his son an exacting perfectionism, as well as disdain for the argument that sport is anything but a game. (“Hard work is getting up at six in the morning to go to the factory,” Sarri has said.)

Sarri, a physical centre-half, showed promise as a youth footballer throughout his childhood in Figline, Tuscany, where he played as an amateur. Having failed to win a professional contract, he instead became a merchant banker. Football was a hobby. Afflicted by injury, he moved into management in Italy’s eighth tier in 1990. After long days in the office he would change into his tracksuit for matches. His double life continued over the ensuing decades as his peripatetic management career developed.

The separation of work and play explains his resistance to Abramovich’s demands that he should wear a suit and tie. Instead, lightly dishevelled, he paces the touchline in a tracksuit, chewing cigarette butts to service his nicotine addiction (he is a chain-smoker). In some respects, Sarri is the last of the gentleman amateurs, marooned in a game whose materialism knows no bounds. In Italy, he was both revered and mocked for his dogmatic approach to a game that, apart from the novels of Charles Bukowski, is his only passion.

His nicknames include “Mister 33”, after the number of set-piece drills he teaches his sides, and the “Taliban trainer”. The latter refers to his disdain for the television cameras rather than his fanaticism – but Chelsea fans can sympathise. Even when his system so visibly fails, Sarri’s faith does not waver. The problem, he has said, is not his philosophy but the expensive players who do not understand it.

History suggests he may soon become a martyr. Sarri has changed clubs as frequently as Abramovich changes managers, never staying in post for more than three years.

Despite the lofty hopes his appointment prompted, it does not appear that Sarri, or Abramovich, will let his tenure run much longer.

Yet one thing will endure: Maurizio Sarri’s uncomplicated love of the game. “They pay me for something I would have done for free after work,” Sarri said in 2015. “I’m lucky.” 

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This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics