From banker to Stamford Bridge - the surreal journey of Maurizio Sarri

Sarri uses drones during practice to monitor the movement of his players, making sure his team’s spacing does not allow the opposition any channels to attack.

Maurizio Sarri is the 11th Chelsea Manager hired by the Abramovich regime.   -  Reuters

Traders are superstitious. With millions of dollars at stake every moment of the day and night, every black cat, every offending ladder left leaning carelessly against a wall, every broken mirror, every raised curtain on a bad Feng Shui sight outside the window, is a portent of imminent disaster.

Having spent over 25-years on a myriad of superstition laden trading floors around the world, I smiled when I first saw Maurizio Sarri, the newest manager of Chelsea Football Club, at work on a football pitch. His moves on the field were a reflection of his past actions on the foreign exchange trading floor, where he had spent much of his adult life. The patterns were unmistakable.

Routines matter to Sarri, as they do to every trader. When he was coaching Napoli, the team would swap back and forth between specific different training pitches every day, changing the schedule only when a winning run came to an end.

READ| Ballack calls for clarity from Chelsea over Sarri after Kepa defiance

Off the field his actions are rather less likely to make one smile, while not unusual for a trader brought up in old world floors where inflated male ego and unabashed machismo was the accepted norm.

The accusation of homophobia for one, levelled by Roberto Mancini, who claimed Sarri used a slur during a Coppa Italia semi-final in 2016. Sarri was fined €20,000 and given a two-game ban after being found guilty.

Two years later followed an unpleasant response the then Napoli manager gave to a journalist Titti Improta, who asked him about Napoli’s title prospects after a draw against Inter Milan.

Be that as it may, when Chelsea, in a move unusual for the club, appointed Sarri as manager the day after it fired Antonio Conte last August, it brought to Stamford Bridge a man who has never won a title with any major team. Even more unusually, the notoriously fickle-minded Roman Abramovich reposed faith in a man who had never played football at the highest level.

READ| Kepa insists he wasn't disobeying Sarri in EFL Cup final confusion

Indeed until his mid-40s, Sarri was still hurling expletives and throwing telephones like most traders of his generation at the world’s oldest bank, Banca Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena.

The journey from a trading floor in Tuscany to the tunnel at Stamford Bridge has been a fascinating one.

Trader to coach of the year — an unlikely journey

In 2005, Sarri was 46 when he landed his first professional coaching job at Serie B club Pescara. Stints at Arezzo, Avellino, Hellas Verona, Perugia, Grosetto, Alessandria, and Sorrento followed before he finally landed at Empoli seven years later, the ninth Serie B club he had worked at in that period. Before arriving in the Serie B, he had coached eight different clubs.

Two years later, against all odds, he not only took Empoli, the 17th club he had coached thus far, to the Serie A, but also managed to keep them there for a second straight year.

At this point, the struggling Napoli, far removed from the glory days of Diego Maradona, called on him to enquire about his interest in joining them as head coach. For Sarri, it was homecoming. Born in the Bagnoli district of Naples to a former professional cyclist and construction worker from Tuscany, Amerigo, and brought up in the Tuscan countryside, given Napoli’s history and his own origins, it was not a difficult decision.

Maurizio Sarri (L) reacts after Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refuses to come off the pitch; Willy Caballero was ready in the sideline.   -  AFP

 

Where joining Pescara had been a dream come true and a career changing opportunity, the move to Napoli changed his life. Equally, the Sarri brand of football would change the face of Italian football, for it brought to Napoli the most crucial building blocks of success on a trading floor — strategy, discipline, consistency.

There is no trading business in the world that succeeds without embedding these into the minds and acts of the foot soldiers on the floor. There is always place for the bizarre, the enigmatic, the egoistic and the supremely talented individual, and indeed they are the ones that give the team that extra edge, that delta which is the difference between the ordinary and the supreme. But all idiosyncrasies and individual acts of brilliance must necessarily build on the core team strategy and operate within its stated confines. Once the formula works, the team must demonstrate the discipline that is needed to consistently replicate success. Thus are successful trading teams built.

When you faced up against Sarri’s Napoli as the opponent’s coach, you needed no spotters or videos to tell you what core strategy his team would adopt. For three years, Sarri’s boys lined up in the 4-3-3 formation as they got ready to play. “Balance is the secret for every team. There cannot be a defensive formation and an attacking formation: such a concept is a limitation. The attacking capacity of a team is the fruit of the work of the manager and of the quality of the players,” Sarri would say three years later.

Within the confines of this strategy, creativity was allowed to foster. Napoli had conceded 54 goals in the league during their final season under Rafael Benítez. Three seasons later, Sarri’s team had brought that down to 29. A year after he joined, with Napoli’s player budget at exactly half of Juventus’, Sarri lost the league’s leading scorer, Gonzalo Higuain to the deep-pocketed rival. Poland's Arkadiusz Milik, who replaced Higuain, tore his cruciate ligament a few weeks later and dropped out of the 11. With no centre forward in sight as replacement, Sarri engineered Dries Mertens into the seat. In that Serie A season, Napoli scored 94 goals.

Sarri’s team played football the Italian league was unused to witnessing. It retained the traditional Italian defensive strength, but combined it with proactive ball play, blending physical power with mental toughness, and used possession to dominate the opponent from the kickoff to the final whistle.

Sarri uses drones during practice to monitor the movement of his players, making sure his team’s spacing does not allow the opposition any channels to attack. When they lose possession, he asks his backline to stay up the field in order to allow the defenders to have little ground to cover when a pressing situation presents itself. As the pressing is triggered, all ten men jump on the opponents very quickly, thus leaving them with no solution but to hit a long ball. And then the attack starts again.

It is little surprise then that for the first time, Sarri’s Napoli team was credited with playing ‘beautiful football’, a compliment that has rarely been extended to a European team beyond the Spanish borders.

From the fifth-place finish that Benitez had managed in 2014-15, Sarri-led Napoli finished second, third and second in the following three years. Last year, Napoli broke the 90-point barrier and became the first Serie A team to reach that mark, and yet not lift the title. The Italian newspapers labelled them the “best runners-up in Serie A history.” A besotted Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola commented: “I am in love with Napoli.”

Sarri could scarcely have done more. The Coach of the Year award was scarce recompense for the second place finish, but in itself an extraordinary achievement for a man who had been throwing telephones at a dealer board within the adrenaline charged atmosphere of a trading floor, just over a decade earlier.

Chelsea and the future for Sarri

Chelsea as a club is almost millennial in its approach, even as it traces its history back 113 years. Over the past 15-years, under Abramovich's ownership and the fanaticism of its modern followers, the club has become the flag-bearer of instant gratification.

It is well known that neither the owner nor the fans (a term that is interestingly a derivative of the word fanatic) have patience to build a sustainable success model. The 5 FA Cups, 5 Premier League titles, 3 Football League Cups, 2 FA Community Shield combined with an UEFA Champions League and a UEFA Europa League title are testimony to the success of the approach of the club. The latest managerial change, in this background, seems either a significant shift in strategy or an enormous leap of faith.

Sarri is the 11th Chelsea Manager hired by the Abramovich regime. He comes neither with the professional football credentials nor the celebratory trappings of his predecessors.

His start at Chelsea was inauspiciously marked by the Twitter hashtag of #SarriOut after a Community Shield loss to rivals Manchester City. But since then until the end of January, Sarri did little to disappoint the Premier League fans. There were only three losses during this period when Chelsea played 22 matches — to Tottenham, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City.

But since the middle of January, the Sarri magic has been largely absent from the field. It started with a 2-0 loss to arch London rival Arsenal in January and was followed by a 4-0 defeat in an away match at Bournemouth. While a 5-0 drubbing of Huddersfield Town brought some pride back to the posh fans in West London, a sorry display that saw the team going to pieces against Manchester City and limp back from Manchester with a 6-0 battering and 6th place in the League, brought the hawks back with sharpened claws aimed at the 59-year old Italian.

Sarri reacted in familiar fashion after the 6-0 loss, accusing his players of ‘not caring.’ His assistant, Gianfranco Zola, accomplished both as a player and a coach, stepped in to provide perspective.

Zola, who played for Napoli alongside Maradona, and then for Chelsea where in 2003 he was voted ‘Chelsea’s Greatest Player Ever’, joined Sarri as his assistant last year. Zola explained: “What we are building here is a philosophy of playing and we need to learn to react altogether. It's not enough that just one player gets the ball and tries to beat two players. That's not the way we try to win games. If you ask me, I don't believe that this group doesn't care. They care. They just need to get this understanding of working together.”

Last weekend, there was a redemption of sorts for Sarri even though the final scoreline of the Football League Cup final showed a Manchester City victory on penalties. Chelsea frustrated the formidable City offense in the first half and allowed only one shot at goal. In the second half, Chelsea actually looked the team more likely to run away with a victory. The ‘Sarri System’ was working and his players looked like they had bought into it.

Then just before the final whistle, it all went horribly wrong.

Chelsea’s record-signing goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga had been suffering from cramps, and when it was clear the match was going to penalties, Sarri wanted him replaced by Willy Caballero. Kepa’s number flashed on the board, but the player was unmoved. Caballero stood by with a bemused look on his face.

Kepa Arrizabalaga of Chelsea saves a penalty from Leroy Sane of Manchester City during the penalty shootout at the Carabao Cup final.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

For exactly three long minutes, Sarri the manager disappeared from the sidelines and was replaced by Sarri the high strung trader. The world witnessed what happens on trading floors when things go awry — an ugliness that rarely makes it way to the sidelines of a football pitch. The screaming, the raving, the ranting, the finger pointing, the stomping off and return — it was all there, as Sarri went ballistic. Three minutes later it had all calmed down and Sarri and Kepa later made statements explaining the ‘misunderstanding’ — Sarri thought Kepa was still cramping, and the goalkeeper was trying to tell him he didn’t want to come off because he had recovered.

 

Notwithstanding this avoidable showdown between manager and goalkeeper, it must be recognised that Sarri and Zola are implementing a system that has built some of the best trading businesses in history. They are aiming to transform Chelsea into a franchise that blends the talents of its superstars into a team that both nurtures and absorbs the brilliance to create a sum of parts that is far bigger than the total.

 

The question is whether Abramovich and the fickle fans of Chelsea will buy into that Sarri dream. Only time, the commodity that is always in such scarce supply at Stamford Bridge, can tell us how this will pan out.