Chelsea: Maurizio Sarri comes full circle on suffering with win at Slavia Praha

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: Maurizio Sarri manager of Chelsea reacts during the Premier League match between Everton FC and Chelsea FC at Goodison Park on March 17, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: Maurizio Sarri manager of Chelsea reacts during the Premier League match between Everton FC and Chelsea FC at Goodison Park on March 17, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images) /

Chelsea found every way to play disjointed, uninspiring and uninspired football and still win at Slavia Praha. Maurizio Sarri celebrated by parroting his predecessor’s immortal phrase.

We’re old enough to remember a loud-as-they-are-stupid segment of Chelsea fans pillorying Antonio Conte for saying Chelsea must be ready to suffer with and without the ball last season. That crowd led the charge for the Blues to hire Maurizio Sarri, who would make football fun again through his eponymous possession-oriented pass-happy keep-ball. They have taken every opportunity to highlight the superficial contrasts between Conte and Sarri, and offered ever more clever dissembling to distract from the similarities between the two.

We’re just over a year old, and that segment is not as loud today. No word on any changes in their other defining characteristic.

Chelsea fans worldwide suffered for most of 90 minutes on Thursday. For much of the first half the Blues seemed to be playing in honour of Danny Drinkwater: they all looked a bit drunk. Some were sloppy (Marcos Alonso), some disappeared (Pedro, Jorginho), some were at turns sharply aggressive and bitterly taciturn (Antonio Rudiger), some were just mean (Ross Barkley).

The Blues started the second half well, but within 10 minutes were on the back foot and turning to their best XI substitutes. Slavia Praha were much better organized defensively than Chelsea’s earlier Europa League opponents, and were willing and able to maintain pressure in the Blues’ half. With a bit more quality in their side and / or a slight whiff of luck, they could have won this match. Even with Marcos Alonso’s goal, the man of the match was Kepa Arrizabalaga, who made two acrobatic saves to keep the home side out.

Sarri acknowledged everyone’s plight in the most irony-rich way possible:

"In this moment we are able to suffer, and in the past we were not able to suffer in the difficult moments of a match. In the past when we were in trouble, we immediately conceded a goal. Now we are able to stay in trouble to fight and to suffer without conceding anything. – Chelsea FC"

All the good times in training, all those laid back 7v0 passing drills, all the ketchup in the canteen, all the laughs over a pack of Bensons just to get the team to a point where they could suffer against substantially weaker opposition.

The difference between the suffering in Prague and various bouts of suffering in London in earlier seasons was, in this case, suffering was not part of the game plan. Chelsea went into the game with the standard Sarriball gameplan and, finding as little purchase against Slavia Praha as against a midtable side back home, had to suffer through their inability to make a dent on the game. Antonio Conte’s suffering, for better or worse, was built into the system. He knew the team would suffer, and part of grinding out the result was grinding down the opponent in the process. The suffering was shared misery.

Chelsea did not grind down Slavia Praha. The hosts took their share of delight from watching their more-celebrated and vastly richer visitors struggle.

The Blues’ suffering was one more sequela of having no backup plan for Sarriball. When Plan A does not work, and there is no Plan B, either capitulate or suffer and hope for a break. Fortunately, Chelsea knew how to do the latter from previous coaches and because it is built into the club’s DNA. Nothing about Sarriball lends itself to the mental tenacity and tactical sturdiness through which one suffers towards a draw and pounces on a win. Sarri owes a debt to his predecessors for the victory and away goal at Slavia Praha.

Perhaps recognizing the value of suffering will switch on one more flickering lightbulb along Sarri’s path away from Sarriball. There are many ways to win a game of football. Chelsea used to know and master all of them, allowing them to pick and choose as necessary. This season, they have only been permitted one way.

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Suffering, though, has a way of forcing adaptation. Sometimes it is the adaptation. Far be it from Maurizio Sarri to learn from his predecessors, his players or the game at large, but there just might be something fruitful in his comments on Thursday night.