Madness at Wembley Stadium

Maurizio Sarri is the manager of Chelsea Football Club. At least I think he still is.

Sarri came to Chelsea this summer from Italy where he had considerable success managing Napoli. His time at Chelsea began well, but the team has slumped lately.

Chelsea’s “dressing room” (or locker room, as we say in the U.S.) has a reputation for toxicity. When the team’s form dipped, word came that Sarri was under fire from some players. It didn’t help that the manager openly criticized his players (though not by name) in the press. It also didn’t help that Sarri seemed to play some of his stars out of position in order to accommodate his rigid tactics. In particular, Ngolo Kante, arguably the world’s best defensive midfielder, was played in a more advanced and less central spot.

Things reached a low point earlier this month when Manchester City thrashed Chelsea 6-0. To make matters more dicey, Chelsea would face Man City in the final of the League Cup (I refuse to call this competition by its latest commercial name).

The match was played yesterday at Wembley Stadium and lo and behold, Chelsea gave as good as it got. Sarri’s tactics were fine and his players executed them resolutely. They stymied Man City’s attack for two hours. At the end of 120 minutes the score was 0-0.

This meant a “shootout” in which each team gets five penalty kicks (or as many of the five as needed to determine a winner). After that, it’s “sudden death.”

As matches head toward penalty kicks, managers typically make their final substitutions (four are allowed in this competition for matches that go 120 minutes) with an eye on maximizing their team’s chances in the shootout. Normally, in around the 117th minute managers bring on a player with a strong record of converting penalty kicks.

At the 2010 World Cup, Louis Van Gaal, Holland’s manager, tried something novel. Just before time expired, he replaced his goalkeeper with a backup who excelled at stopping penalty kicks. The strategy worked. Holland won the shootout thanks in part to the keeper.

Yesterday at Wembley, Sarri wanted to use this approach. The circumstances were a little bit different because his goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga (Kepa the Keeper, I call him), was experiencing muscle cramps as the shootout approached (or else faking them to give his teammates a breather).

This bolstered the case for a substitute, but the case was sound in any event. Backup goalkeeper Willy Caballero excels at stopping penalty kicks. He was the hero of a shootout in the League Cup final a few years ago.

At the time, Caballero played for Manchester City. As a former City keeper, he knows how most of the current City players like to shoot their penalties. Thus, bringing him on for Kepa the Keeper made sense at multiple levels.

But Kepa didn’t think so. He refused to come out of the match.

I’ve been watching soccer for 40 years and have never seen this happen. More tellingly, the various ex-players covering the match for British media say they hadn’t seen it either — men like Jamie Redknapp, who not only played the game for years but grew up around it, his father being a long-time manager.

Sarri was beside himself over Kepa’s refusal to be substituted. He raged on the sidelines, stormed towards the dressing room before turning back, and had to be restrained from going after Kepa. But Kepa was unmoved.

With one exception, Chelsea’s players did nothing to help their manager. Only David Luiz encouraged Kepa to depart. Cesar Azpilicueta, the club’s captain and a Spaniard like Kepa, played no part.

Eventually, the match proceeded to penalty kicks with Kepa still in goal for Chelsea. Unfortunately, his play during the shootout did not justify (as if it could) his obstinance. Kepa did manage to save one of the five Man City kicks, but another that he should have stopped squirmed under his body.

Meanwhile, Chelsea converted only two of four kicks. City won another trophy.

After the match, Sarri tried to downplay Kepa’s insubordination. He claimed it was a “big misunderstanding” — that he thought Kepa was injured; that Kepa wasn’t defying him, just insisting he was fit to continue. “Kepa was right,” Sarri said with a straight face, “but in the wrong way.”

Kepa went along with this. He claimed he did not intend to defy his manager.

What will the fallout be? Chelsea paid a fortune for Kepa. I believe his transfer fee is the largest ever for a goalkeeper. Chelsea should bench him, but calls for him never to play for the club again, though understandable, are unrealistic.

Sarri’s days were thought to be numbered before yesterday’s match. His position, surely, is more tenuous now, despite Chelsea’s strong performance at Wembley.

Chelsea will play Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday. Spurs are an outstanding team and a London rival of Chelsea. If Chelsea plays well against them, Sarri might well survive. If Chelsea is routed, this will likely be Sarri’s swan song at the club.

Chelsea, though, has a deeper problem than Sarri. He’s not the first manager the players have undermined.

At root, the problem may be Chelsea’s Russian owner — kleptocrat Roman Abramovich. He has a hair-trigger when it comes to firing managers. His players seem prepared to control their managers’ fate by showing lack of enthusiasm for them through their play.

Apparently, Abramovich wasn’t at yesterday’s match. Maybe he’s on his yacht in some sunny venue. I doubt he feels sunny about what transpired at Wembley, though.

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