Conventional wisdom dictates that football managers shouldn’t criticise their players in public. Point out their flaws, tear strips off them and give them the hairdryer treatment behind closed doors, but in front of the cameras it’s generally regarded as counter-productive.
Maurizio Sarri has never been one for convention, though. The Chelsea manager, who had a career in banking before taking up coaching full-time and didn’t work in the top flight until he was 55, ripped up the rulebook after his side’s 2-0 Premier League defeat at Arsenal on Saturday.
Insisting on speaking in his native tongue lest his words lose any of their impact, the Italian put it to his players that they were “extremely difficult to motivate”. “This is never going to be a team well known for its battling and fighting qualities,” Sarri added.
In fairness to the former Napoli boss, his team were hugely disappointing against Arsenal. The hosts – themselves hardly renowned for their brawn and guts – out-fought Chelsea from the first whistle to the last and the visitors could not have complained had they lost by a bigger margin.
Nor was this the first time in recent weeks that the Blues have turned in an anaemic display. A struggling Southampton side held them to a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge earlier this month, while Leicester left west London with all three points just before Christmas.
And Sarri isn’t the first Chelsea manager to clash with his squad. Jose Mourinho departed his second stint at the club in 2015 with a hail of barbs aimed at the players who “betrayed” him. His successor Antonio Conte fell out with key men Diego Costa and David Luiz.
If there is a motivation problem with this group, however, then it might serve Sarri well to look closer to home. The 60-year-old has found success as an ideologue but some of his bold tactical and selection calls have risked alienating players lately.
His lack of faith in either of his centre-forwards has led him to exile Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud from the starting XI and use Eden Hazard as an auxiliary striker – a move that worked in a 2-0 win over Manchester City in December but has had mixed results since.
It’s a ploy at least in part designed to remind the club’s hierarchy of the urgent need for another forward – a loan move for Gonzalo Higuain, who played under Sarri at Napoli, appears to be a possibility – but it comes with collateral damage.
Morata and Giroud are belittled by their treatment, while Hazard is forced to play in a position other than his favoured No10 role. Previous Chelsea managers can attest to how much Hazard’s effectiveness – you might call it motivation – can fluctuate depending on his happiness.
Criticising players in public is a drastic means of provoking the team into a reaction. Whether it proves to be the reaction that Sarri wants is another matter. Mourinho and Conte didn’t last long after crossing the dressing room. With Chelsea’s grip on a top-four place weakening, Sarri is choosing a dangerous time to roll the dice.