Maurizio Sarri: Why did it take so long for him to sign, and what should Chelsea fans expect?
After months of speculation, the summer’s least surprising managerial change has finally come to pass as Chelsea have replaced Antonio Conte with former Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri.
Just why this announcement took so long to materialise is a curious topic to consider. The extent to which the appointment had been on the cards descended into something akin to farce by the saga’s end. Conte’s appearance at the first day of Chelsea’s pre-season was greeted with amusement by the considerable number of observers who saw his every recent move as another contrived act to ensure he was eventually dismissed while receiving compensation once he was. Napoli, meanwhile, hired Carlo Ancelotti as their new coach with Sarri still on their books, a state of affairs which seemed unlikely to remain the case for long.
Perhaps the two parties needed to iron out the details of the transfer of midfield maestro Jorginho who has accompanied Sarri in his move from the San Paolo to Stamford Bridge, and whose £57m fee is rumoured – again, rather farcically – to have been inflated in order to absorb the cost of Chelsea’s unconventional ‘purchase’ of Sarri. Or maybe Conte’s drawn-out game of chicken with the Chelsea board, as each dared the other to move first and forego the financial benefit of holding fast, is the likeliest explanation for the delay.
Another possibility well worthy of consideration, even if the stated hypotheses are sufficient enough, is that Chelsea were stalling on their decision. In his embrace of stylish passing football and rejection of big-money transfers, Sarri represents everything that the Chelsea hierarchy were looking for in order to turn a corner in the post-billionaire age in which Abramovic’s wealth no longer makes European giants quake. But the Tuscan tactician has a history of verbal misdemeanours that may have sparked some lengthy conversations over his suitability for a club that’s had its fair share of PR troubles.
Sarri’s most high profile outburst came against compatriot Roberto Mancini after a Coppa Italia clash between Napoli and Inter in January 2016. Mancini alleged that Sarri had, during a heated touchline exchange between the two coaches over the amount of stoppage time to be added, called him a ‘poof’ and a ‘faggot’.
Sarri claimed he couldn’t remember if he’d used these specific words but didn’t deny doing so, and concerningly argued that ‘what is said on the pitch should stay on the pitch’ – not a sentiment that chimes well with recent attempts to root homophobia out of a sport that still includes an impossibly low number of openly gay professionals among its ranks. Mancini wrongly declared in his post-match press conference that someone who produced such utterances would never step foot on a football field in England.
Subsequent reporting on the incident revealed that Sarri had previous. In 2014, while still in charge of Empoli, Sarri produced an appallingly unedifying diatribe relating to one of his player’s being sent off:
‘Football has become a sport for fags. We suffered twice as many fouls, but we had more yellow cards. It’s a contact sport in Italy and but the whistle is blown a lot more than in England because of the interpretation by homosexuals.’
Sarri’s woeful record of political incorrectness hasn’t been limited to homophobia, either. Just in March of this year, he had to apologise for telling a female reporter that ‘you’re beautiful, you’re a woman, for those two reasons I won’t tell you to go f*** yourself.’
Whether or not these transgressions made Chelsea stop and think before appointing him, a more material question is how Sarri will be perceived in his new country of residence. His arrival presents a problem for those who like to make a direct link between the free-thinking, anti-establishment political espousals of Guardiola and Klopp with the free-flowing, ‘progressive’ brands of football their teams exhibit. Sarri’s passing game is every bit as enthralling to watch as those of the aforementioned duo, but he’s expressed views that belong in the middle ages.
Any instinct to cast Sarri as a right-wing Italian eccentric in the mould of Paolo di Canio wouldn’t be an accurate one. Grandson of an anti-Mussolini partigiano and son of a factory worker, the Tuscan is known to eschew a hard-left political ideology typical of his region of Italy. His bigoted remarks seem to be borne purely out of anger, ignorance and insensitivity rather than a fascist-leaning worldview that those vaguely familiar with Italian football culture might mistakenly presume. Sarri’s commitment to aesthetically beautiful play coupled with a scruffy tracksuited attire and ravenous touchline chain-smoking (a habit that will have to go if he is to comply with English stadium laws) take him as far from established stereotypes of the traditional Italian manager – suave, pragmatic, defensive – as is possible to imagine.
Maurizio Sarri is, then, an enigmatic oddity who defies simple categorisation. As the British media may have to learn, there’s no strong reason why the content of a coach’s angry insults, political views, football philosophy and physical appearance should be interpretable as consistent with one another, and Sarri’s emphatically aren’t. Understandably, plenty will be eager to see how this hunched-over former banker will adapt to a role that will see him thrust into a more expectant and unforgiving media spotlight than he has thus far experienced. But perhaps a more interesting narrative to follow will be just how the world’s most modern football league will react to him.