When it comes to knee-jerk reactions – especially when appointing head coaches – no club does it quite like Chelsea.
When looking for a new manager to lead their team, the defacto setting of the club’s hierarchy for over a decade appears to be to hire the antithesis of the man they will replace.
Rewind to 2008. After the pragmatism of José Mourinho, via a brief spell under Avram Grant, came the free-flowing football of Luiz Felipe Scolari. When the unpopular André Villas-Boas was sacked, his affable assistant, Roberto Di Matteo, was given a battlefield promotion. When things went awry under the Italian, in came a drill sergeant in Rafael Benítez.
And last summer, Chelsea ditched Antonio Conte, a defensive-minded coach, and replaced him with Maurizio Sarri, a man wedded to attacking, cavalier football.
The Blues knew what they were getting in Sarri. He believes in his tactical structure and that alone. Players may not like it, pundits may question it, but no matter the results, he will not change.
Which brings us to the present day. Chelsea’s season is unravelling. The 6-0 defeat to Manchester City was humiliating. It was the club’s worst defeat since 1991. The Blues have slipped out of the Premier League top four and their attempts to return to the Champions League may rest on winning the Europa League.
With plenty of uncertainty around Sarri’s position, stories have emerged in the national press that Chelsea are considering yet another managerial change. They want Zinedine Zidane.
It’s no great surprise. While Sarri is inflexible, Zidane is willing to compromise. While Sarri is blunt, Zidane is tactful. While Sarri is yet to win a trophy, Zidane has three straight Champions League successes to his name.
The French coach, thanks to his incredibly successful playing career, also has a far greater cache than Sarri and the fact he is Eden Hazard’s idol would be viewed as a useful bargaining chip in difficult contract negotiations with the Belgian.
Yet despite his successes in Europe with Real Madrid, there remains something of a question mark over Zidane the coach. Was he just the right man in the right place at the right time?
La flor de Zizou
During his time as manager of Los Blancos, the Spanish media often wrote Zidane had a flower stuck in his backside. Translated it simply meant he was lucky.
Of course, any successful manager needs a slice of good fortune but it was an unfair stick with which to beat the French coach. While he may not have the tactical acumen of a Pep Guardiola, Zidane knew how to handle a collection of egos.
“He understands the mentality of a dressing room,” Real midfielder Casemiro explained last May.
“He knows that a player is also a human being. Some days you are sad, some days angry. He knows how to talk to a player if something is going on. That is his strength, he knows how to connect inside the dressing room.”
At the Bernabéu Zidane had a group of exceptional talents; Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco, Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and many more. His job, first and foremost, was to keep this group happy. Do that and results would follow.
“I am not the best coach tactically,” Zidane accepted before last season’s Champions League final. “And, well, I don’t need to say that because you lot [the media] always say that, anyway.”
Zidane is not a tactical fanatic. However, he showed his nous on several occasions, changing systems throughout his two-and-a-half years in charge; from 4-3-3, to a 4-4-2 diamond, to 4-2-3-1.
What he doesn’t have, though, is a steadfast football philosophy like Sarri. Quique Setién, now Real Betis manager, once described Real Madrid’s style under the former midfielder as “anarchy”. It was unpredictable, a mix of team structure and individual brilliance.
Chelsea the jokers
Since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 the Blues have lived up to a quote from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight: “Introduce a little anarchy…. upset the established order… and everything becomes chaos.”
In the past 15 years, the club has been in a permanent state of chaos. And it has paid off rather spectacularly. Managers come and go. Players come and go. Yet the trophies continue to roll in.
However, Chelsea are now at a crossroads. Legends have moved on, replaced with inferior players. The unbreakable self-belief of previous squads has disappeared, replaced with brittleness and self-doubt.
Managing Chelsea in 2019 is not an easy gig. Sarri has found that out the hard way. In all probability, Zidane would too.
The Blues squad needs major improvement in the summer but there is no evidence to suggest Zizou is a squad builder, a project manager. His appointment, much like Sarri’s, would be a risk. A step into the unknown once again.
Chelsea can’t afford to get another appointment wrong, and with Zidane, or any other coach for that matter, there are no guarantees.
Sarri may have endured a very difficult winter but spring is just around the corner. There is time for a flower to blossom yet.