Jonathan Liew: 'Arrizabalaga saga may finally spell end of road for Sarri-ball'

Chelsea assistant manager Gianfranco Zola is caught in the middle as Maurizio Sarri reacts after Kepa Arrizabalaga refuses to be substituted. Photo: Reuters

 It was October 2012 and, in more ways than one, time was running out for Empoli's new coach Maurizio Sarri.

Winless with three points from their first seven games, his side were rooted to the bottom of Serie B - a league not renowned for its patience with managers.

Now, having led early on against Varese, they trailed 2-1 deep into injury time after another shambolic defensive performance. The substitutions had all been made. The cigarettes had been chewed. As the seconds leaked away, Sarri's future was no longer in his control.

Salvation sometimes comes in the unlikeliest of places. In the 96th minute, Varese' goalkeeper fumbled a regulation catch. Riccardo Saponara hooked the ball into the empty net and, from the brink of oblivion, Sarri was redeemed.

Over the subsequent weeks, Empoli went on a stirring run that would take them to the brink of promotion to Serie A and propel Sarri on a wild and unlikely journey: first to Naples, then to west London, and finally, on a mild and swirling February afternoon, to Wembley Stadium, and another eyeball-to-eyeball meeting with fate.


The league Cup, too, is an unlikely source of salvation. More recently, in fact, it has become affectionately known as the kiss of death for managers as varied as Juande Ramos, Kenny Dalglish and Michael Laudrup - an ornament to the season rather than a genuine part of it, a venerable if not entirely venerated English footballing institution whose sole narrative thread (Milk Cup to Coca-Cola Cup to Worthington Cup to Carling Cup to its current iteration as the Carabao Cup) has been the series of increasingly noxious beverages to have sponsored it.

So after a bleak mid-winter, was this competition really going to be Sarri's life raft?

Certainly it was hard to take too many crumbs of comfort from either the occasion or the opposition.

Win the League Cup in February, and it's still only the League Cup, pretty much forgotten by April. Lose heavily - again - against this carbon-fibre racing machine of a Manchester City side, and surely we would have been in cellos-and-montage territory.

Sarri is fairly sanguine about these sorts of things, as they go. When you've managed 19 clubs over three decades, perhaps you learn to take the rough with the smooth a little. You learn to accept the part that you can't control, and focus on the part that you can.

And in many ways, this is the infernal bargain to which all coaches willingly submit themselves: for all the years of toil and hours in the video room, for all the plans and the philosophies and superstitions and stratagems, there comes a point when you're just a bloke standing on the Wembley touchline, as powerless as the dead, hoping that Cesar Azpilicueta can stick the ball into the net from 12 yards.

For Sarri, the loss of control had come by slow, agonising degrees. First the tactics: a partial dilution of his rigid 4-3-3, into something more closely approximating a 4-5-1, with Pedro and Willian tucking into the midfield when possession was lost. The ruthless press had its front teeth extracted.

Sarri's Chelsea would sit behind the ball, soak up pressure, play with barely 30pc possession.

For a coach who has built his career on ball domination, watching City's light blue shirts whizzing all around his team must have felt like the ultimate abasement.


But it kept Chelsea in the game. As the second half progressed, Chelsea began to find their feet on the break, began to work the ball to Eden Hazard more consistently.

There were scares at both ends. As the end of the 90 minutes approached, with the ball pinballing from penalty area to penalty area like a grenade, any semblance of control had long since evaporated from a game that had become essentially a series of high-velocity collisions.

Then the decisions: most notably an exceptionally tight offside call when Eden Hazard was clean through in the second minute of injury time. You can't control those, either.

And as normal time turned to extra time, Sarri eschewed the customary introduction of Mateo Kovacic to bring on Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

If it wasn't a full-scale Plan B, then at the very least it was certainly Plan A in a false moustache and chiffon scarf, putting on a cod-English accent.

And then finally: Kepa. As his headstrong goalkeeper refused to leave the pitch, with Sarri furiously gesticulating, referee Jon Moss mediating and substitute Willy Caballero standing dumbfounded on the touchline like a strippagram who had turned up at the wrong party, Sarri's loss of control was finally complete.

He was the manager famous for possessing 33 set-piece routines, for stopping training sessions for minutes on end to move players to the exact square foot he wanted them to stand in. Now he couldn't even make a substitution in a cup final.

For the most part, it worked. From Chelsea's point of view, keeping the game tight was probably their only hope of taking it deep.

The introduction of Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi showed a healthy willingness to deviate from the script.

And their stirring second-half rally could quite plausibly have won him a first major trophy. It was the performance of a man fighting for his life. It's probably saved him his job for now.

But none of that will have been much comfort to him now, climbing the steps of the Royal Box to pick up his loser's medal.

The dark and the cold had set in, and although it's a fair bet he wasn't thinking about the Varese game in 2012, it's entirely possible he was wondering what on earth happens now, and realising that he didn't have the faintest idea.

Forty-four games into his Chelsea career, Sarri had finally let the reins slip. And it probably felt a lot like falling.