Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga shocked the world by defying manager Maurizio Sarri’s request for a substitution.
The whole world, no matter whether they like soccer, has likely seen the video of Kepa Arrizabalaga, goalkeeper for Chelsea, rebuffing the substitution off the pitch during the 2019 Carabao Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester City. Maurizio Sarri, the manager for the London side, told by his medics that Kepa was suffering from cramps, chose to sub in veteran goalkeeper Willy Caballero with that knowledge. Kepa, in what appeared to be an act of insubordination, refused to leave, repeating, “I’m okay.”
Stunned with the rest of the soccer world, Sarri then almost walked out of the stadium, and likely his job, but was called back when told Kepa was fine.
Chelsea went on to lose in a penalty shootout 4-3 with Kepa allowing an easy save from Sergio Aguero to slip literally between his fingers.
Although Chelsea played a nearly flawless game, in which they arguably looked better than the defending champions, those uncomfortable three minutes of a player denying his manager dominated headlines.
This event was the culmination of an epidemic that has plagued Chelsea since Roman Abramovich’s takeover of the club in 2003: the priority of players over the managers. Although this makes financial sense (Kepa Arrizabalaga was the most expensive goalkeeper transfer ever at the time of his purchase by Chelsea), it doesn’t produce a winning football culture. Abramovich has fired over a dozen coaches in 16 years, and Sarri looks halfway out the door.
No one believed former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho when he was shown the door for the second time. It was the players, he insisted, that refused to play.
When Antonio Conte arrived, revolutionized English soccer with his three defenders at the back, and won the league in his second year, he was practically begging the owner to sack him in the third year. The same words came out of the Italian manager: once the players began to realize they wouldn’t win the league, they stopped playing with conviction.
Abramovich let Conte go and hired tactical visionary Maurizio Sarri out of Napoli to bring beautiful, possession-style football to Stamford Bridge.
After acquiring Kepa and Napoli linchpin Jorginho, Chelsea started the season unbeaten for 12 games. Cruyffian football had arrived in London.
However, when Sarri’s team eventually lost, and Liverpool and Manchester City broke away at the top of the table, the team fell apart. Chelsea lost multiple games in a row and suddenly found themselves barely clinging to fourth place.
When Sarri publicly called out the players by admitting he “couldn’t motivate them” after a lifeless Arsenal loss, the media tore into the Italian for taking out his frustrations in a public forum.
The 0-6 loss to Manchester City at home only intensified the calls for Abramovich to sack manager #13.
Chelsea looked like they didn’t want to be out on the pitch and repeatedly made rudimentary mistakes with no effort exerted. Sarri again tried to appeal to anyone, but he was again ripped for his supposed inflexible tactics and his insistence on using Jorginho in the middle.
However, Sunday revealed the truth: Sarri called for a substitution and the player refused to come off. Only David Luiz, the last person anyone would have expected, told Kepa to sub out. The captain, Cesar Azpilicueta, didn’t move. Antonio Rudiger? Nowhere to be found. Superstar Eden Hazard? Simply staring in awe.
The players are used to being champions. Anything less doesn’t require their 100 percent effort and they can simply get the manager fired by crying wolf loud enough. Previous managers called the Chelsea board and management out in public but they were dismissed by everyone as the disgruntled whinings of failures. But the truth is evident now: this team needs a fundamental rebuilding from the foundation.
The transfer director, Marina Granovskaia, needs to be fired immediately. Callum Hudson-Odoi should be re-signed and guaranteed a starting position. The untouchable “popular clique” of Willian, Marcus Alonso, Hazard, Azpilicueta, Luiz and Rudiger need to be shipped off, regardless of talent.
Combined with the transfer ban for two windows due to their youth scouting and signing practices, Chelsea has a chance to regroup and build a winning culture through their alleged loan army and impeccable youth academy. Sarri should retain his position and cement his style of soccer into Stamford Bridge both at the youth and senior levels.
This doesn’t mean that Sarri doesn’t need to improve. He continues to use the best defensive midfielder in the world, Ngolo Kante, out of position and needs to be pressed on that error. He also should make use of his bench to avoid exhausting his star players. But the media’s insistence that Sarri’s ineffectiveness and stubbornness will be his downfall sounds similar to what they said during Pep Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City.
The Catalan, when he was given the right players and the time, produced the most dominant season in Premier League history.
Sarri may lack the innate genius of Guardiola, but the Italian has a chance to resurrect Chelsea football if he’s given the right opportunities.
The Italian wants to stay but keeps running into detractors and bystanders. On Sunday, the world found out what the real problem at Chelsea was. It remains to be seen what Abramovich will do about it.