On the face of things Chelsea are far from a club in crisis.
They sit outside of the Premier League’s top four on goal difference and are still in all four competitions, having progressed to the final of the Carabao Cup and the fifth round of the FA Cup in the last eight days.
The Blues have only lost four of their last 15 games in all competitions, one of which was the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final against Tottenham that they eventually came through on penalties.
While league defeats by Leicester and Arsenal dented their pride, it is the latest setback which has set the cat amongst the pigeons at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea’s loss at Bournemouth on Wednesday evening was more than just a loss. The 4-0 scoreline – their biggest league defeat in 23 years since Ruud Gullit’s side were thrashed 5-1 at Anfield in 1996 – the nature of performance, the travelling fans’ response and manager Maurizio Sarri’s post-match actions have combined to leave a pervasive negativity around the club.
In the wake of Josh King and David Brooks’ second-half blitz on the south coast Sarri’s season-starting 18-match unbeaten run now seems a long time ago. Suddenly some of the problems which had been bubbling below the surface are now conspicuously visible – and Sarri hasn’t helped the situation.
Rather than taking a measured approach, the Italian doubled down on his criticism of his players. His assertion after the 2-0 defeat by Arsenal on 19 January that they weren’t following instructions and were hard to motivate resurfaced in Bournemouth, with a frustrated Sarri admitting he was struggling to understand just what went wrong.
In the aftermath of the defeat the 60-year-old kicked his staff out of the changing room and, in the words of captain Cesar Azpilicueta, “spoke as men” with the players for 50 minutes in search of answers. If that was a bad sign, then the words of Sarri to the media exacerbated things.
“We are struggling, above all mentally,” he told Sky Italia. “We had assumed that we learned a certain style of football, but the truth is we never did learn it and are paying the consequences. We haven’t even learned the most basic moves yet. We need to work on the basics, the primary foundations of my football, and only then will we try to change a few things.”
Sarri has a clear idea in his mind of how he wants Chelsea to play. He was hired by the club specifically because they were impressed with the style of his Napoli team.
He had the mandate to implement his philosophy, but after 37 games perhaps it is time to back down from his stubborn nature and show some flexibility.
The chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” emanating from the Chelsea away end on Wednesday may have come when Sarri substituted new loan signing Gonzalo Higuain for Olivier Giroud in the 65th minute, but they stem from a wider unhappiness with the Italian’s rigid game-plan.
Chelsea beat off competition from Manchester City to sign of Jorginho from Napoli in the summer. But while the midfielder is the key building block of Sarri’s creation and began the season as the crux of their success, he’s now become a lightning rod for fans’ frustration.
In Sarri’s idealised vision of how football should be played, Jorginho is the conductor, spreading play purposefully from a deep-lying role. But in a dysfunctional team which the manager says haven’t mastered the basics of his philosophy he acts instead as a sideways passing metronome and an object of the opponents’ attention.
Bournemouth showed that if you shut down the supply you can derail the machine. Chelsea completed over twice as many passes as the Cherries, but failed to fashion a single chance for Higuain.
When you throw into the mix a frosty relationship between manager and star player Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante’s continued use in a box-to-box role instead of his favoured ball-winning midfielder and the ponderous form of previously dependable players you’ve got yourself a recipe to get Roman Abramovich twitching.
The Chelsea owner has given his last two managers, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, a fair crack of the whip to turn things around, but the Russian is driven by success and would not hesitate in beginning the search for a 14th managerial appointment since taking over in 2003.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked in February 2009 with a record of six defeats in 36 and the team in fourth place, while Andre Villas-Boas was dismissed in March 2012 with Chelsea three points adrift of the Champions League places, having lost 10 of his 40 games in charge.
Sarri is not yet on the precipice and the situation isn’t irretrievable.
With bottom side Huddersfield visiting Stamford Bridge on Saturday he could use the opportunity to stray from his ingrained doctrine and search for solutions; the squad is deep enough and talented enough to adapt to an altered approach.
But having spent nearly 30 years in management working his way up, studying the game and refining “Sarri-ball” it seems unlikely the Italian will back down now.