by Llion Carbis
In the face of considerable scrutiny and increased pressure on Maurizio Sarri’s position, Chelsea produced a defiantly characterful display against Manchester City in the final of the Carabao Cup final. Despite ultimately losing in the cruellest of fashions, a gruelling 3-4 defeat in the penalty shoot-out, Chelsea succeeded to negate the Premier League’s most potent outfit for 120 minutes.
Such is the Italian’s obsession with instituting his favoured style of play, one that has led to heavy defeats against Manchester City and Bournemouth, and disappointing losses to top-six rivals (Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur), he had been presented in an unfavourable light. The portrayal was that of a stubborn manager, unwavering in his unwillingness to adapt and play outside his established remit; one that failed to utilise the main strengths of his team, and one that became so blatantly predictable to divisional rivals.
However, Chelsea’s cup final display was markedly different in its composition and character. Sarri’s instruction to press 20 yards deeper than the Blues did in the 6-0 drubbing at the Etihad Stadium was ingenious. As opposed to fighting with City toe-to-toe, Sarri’s side were perceptive and canny in their attempts to neutralise Pep Guardiola’s team, choosing the correct moments to intervene and counter-attack. Uncharacteristically, Sarri’s substitutions were surprising, inspired, and most importantly, impactful.
Regardless of the result, the performance had the potential to be transformative, one that could reverse the club’s meteoric decline. Chelsea have lost six games in all competitions (including the cup final) since the turn of the year. However, the defiant and dogged display was largely overshadowed by a moment of petulance and insubordination by Kepa Arrizabalaga. With only minutes remaining in the final, and with the game drawing ever-nearer to penalties, the Spanish keeper fell to the ground for the second time in the contest.
The 24-year-old was initially an injury doubt for the final having missed Chelsea’s Europa League triumph against Malmo through a hamstring injury. Introducing Willy Caballero, a former Manchester City player, and penalty-saving specialist seemed like a logical and correct decision by Maurizio Sarri; that was until Kepa had chosen to defy and undermine the authority of his manager publicly. Cue scenes of instinctive and irrepressible rage from Maurizio Sarri.
Despite the presence of fourth official’s substitution board, instructing Kepa to be replaced by Caballero, the Spaniard refused to depart the field, fervently communicating to Sarri his insistence on remaining on the pitch, thereby undermining the authority of his manager. Situated in the upper tier at Wembley, I was left utterly perplexed by the incident.
Given that Caballero is a former Manchester City player, aware of their players’ penalty-taking habits, and the fact that he has a respectable record at saving spot-kicks, he was conceivably better equipped than his superior to take charge for the shoot-out. While Kepa’s belief that he could win the game for Chelsea was commendable, the way he betrayed the trust of his manager by disobeying his decision was entirely unbecoming. Without dwelling on the what ifs, once Kepa had decided to defy his manager, he had to win the penalty shoot-out.
While the reaction from some media circles to the incident has been typically reactionary, and needlessly hysterical, Chelsea’s decision to punish Kepa a week’s wages is indicative of the severity in which the conflict is regarded. To his credit, the Spaniard has apologised to his teammates, his manager, Willy Caballero, and the supporters. It will likely prove to be a formative experience in the goalkeeper’s development, but one that resurfaced claims of possible player power at Chelsea, and intensified murmurs of alleged disconnect between squad and manager.