Where has it all gone wrong for Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea?
Monday's 2-0 defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup had Chelsea fans chanting 'you're getting sacked in the morning'
The cacophony of jeers and boos that greeted Monday’s exit in the FA Cup at the hands of Manchester United look like being one of the final nails in Maurizio Sarri’s coffin at Chelsea.
Next up is a a last-32 Europa League second leg against Malmo before contesting the League Cup final against Manchester City three days later. The sense is only a pair of victories will keep Sarri in the job. But, as his predecessor, Antonio Conte, will attest, winning a trophy is no guarantee of long-term employment at Stamford Bridge.
It is all a far cry from the former banker's start to life in England. Unbeaten in his first 16 games, Sarri's record in his last 16 reads nine wins, one draw and six defeats, including thumping away losses to Bournemouth and Manchester City.
The win column deserves further scrutiny too. Two of those victories came against second-tier opposition in the FA Cup, one against a club anchored to the bottom of the Premier League and one against Malmo - a team still deep in winter hibernation in their domestic league in Sweden - in the Europa League.
So where has it all gone wrong for Sarri and Chelsea?
A lack of a Plan B
Jorginho's £57 million (Dh270m) arrival at Stamford Bridge last summer would signal a shift from Conte's favoured 3-4-3 formation to a 4-1-2-3 with the Italian metronome at the base of midfield to usher in "Sarri-ball", a possession-based game in which Jorginho was integral to implementing under Sarri at Napoli.
Jorginho broke the Premier League record for most successful passes in a single game against West Ham United in October with 180 and is well on course to set a new record in England's top tier. But as impressive as the stats are, they also mask the fact that Jorginho is yet to register a single assist in the league this season. Opponents have wised up how to curtail his impact on Chelsea's rhythm by hunting in packs or man-marking him out of games.
Sarri's refusal to switch formations or personnel, with N'Golo Kante acting as a screen to unleash Jorginho further forward, has left Chelsea fans seething.
Kante's best position
There is an argument that Kante’s best position is wherever he is on the pitch. The Frenchman has been deployed in a more advanced role to accommodate Jorginho in midfield. His runs from deep have caused plenty of problems for opposing teams and his goal against Crystal Palace in December, courtesy of a pinpoint pass from David Luiz, was the product of hours of drills on the training ground at Cobham.
But what Chelsea have gained from Kante as an attacking force they have lost as a defensive one. His contributions to successive league titles, for Leicester City and Chelsea, were defined largely by an assassin with the ability to also drive his team further up the field. Regardless of who is in charge at Chelsea beyond Sunday, playing both Jorginho and Kante as a pair at the base of midfield has to be a tactic worth pursuing.
Lack of a centre-forward
When Sarri arrived in West London he had at his disposal a World Cup-winning centre-forward and a Spain international who had played in Uefa Champions League finals for both Juventus and Real Madrid.
Olivier Giroud's contribution to France's World Cup triumph in Russia could be measured more in grit than goals, and Morata's dip in form at Chelsea since December 2017 was alarming, but both have proven pedigree at Europe's top clubs to be entrusted with leading Chelsea's attack. Morata was sent on loan to Atletico Madrid, and Giroud last started a league match in December.
Eden Hazard had largely been deployed as a false 9, much to his chagrin, until the arrival in January of Gonzalo Higuain, a striker who flourished under Sarri at Napoli. Higuain made an almost immediate impact with two goals against Huddersfield Town but was a non-entity in the drubbing to City when he was shot down by his fellow Argentine Sergio Aguero, scorer of three of City's six goals.
A similar scoreline against City at Wembley on Sunday will surely not be tolerated. And while others were far more at fault than Higuain at the Etihad, another redundant display from the Juventus loanee would not go down well with the Chelsea faithful either.
Hazard has been a shining light again this season, and 15 goals is an even more impressive return when you consider he has never looked totally at ease in Sarri's set-up.
The wheels have come off in spectacular fashion in recent months. After keeping pace with leaders Liverpool and Manchester City for the first quarter of the campaign, Chelsea are now the backmarkers in a three-way battle for fourth place with United and Arsenal.
Hazard's reluctance to commit his long-term future beyond his present deal, which expires in June 2020, however, has hung over Sarri since taking the reins last summer, with more and more of his press conferences spent answering questions over the Belgian forward's future.
Hazard's decision will come down to professional and personal considerations. After six-and-a-half seasons at Stamford Bridge, bigger stages await, with Real Madrid long-time admirers. But the constant upheaval at Chelsea and lack of long-term strategy must be a turn off for one of the world's best talents. Since Hazard joined from Lille in August 2012, Chelsea have gone through five full-time managers and one part-time coach. Trophies have been secured but peace of mind and stability are what every player seeks.
With Sarri seemingly clinging to his job, Hazard is entitled to feel his interests are best served elsewhere.
Updated: February 19, 2019 11:57 AM