As BURN FM’s self-appointed “Chelsea crisis” correspondent, I had a strong feeling that before long, I’d be writing something else about the club that appears to be perpetually dancing on the edge of a volcano. However, I didn’t expect the next twist in this sorry saga to occur less than a day-and-a-half after I’d filed my last article on the subject.
This latest volume in the ever-expanding tome that will probably end up being titled something along the lines of: “Chelsea Crises – Anarchy under Abramovich” pertains to what can only be described as an act of gross insubordination by their goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, during the final of the Carabao Cup.
After Kepa went down, injured in the late stages of extra-time, Sarri clearly wanted to substitute him and put Willy Caballero between the sticks for the rest of the match. However, noticing that he was about to be brought off, Kepa quickly rose back to his feet and, in frankly unprecedented scenes, refused to leave the pitch rendering Sarri apoplectic with rage by the contempt shown for him by one of his own players.
In a case of poetic justice, the match then went to penalties where Chelsea duly lost with Kepa not exactly covering himself in glory by allowing Sergio Aguero’s tame effort to slip under his body and into the net. This mistake only compounded the fury felt by fans and cemented his place as persona non grata at Wembley that evening.
In a remarkable turn of events for a man who is renowned for being incredibly forthright with his opinions, Sarri chose to take a commendably diplomatic approach in his post-match press conference whilst discussing the incident – playing off the saga as simply a misunderstanding between himself and his player. Unfortunately, as this isn’t the 1950s, there were quite literally hundreds of cameras trained on the unfolding situation, so it didn’t take a great amount of detective work to see that this explanation was blatantly untrue.
This isn’t the first time that a manager has tried to deflect the spotlight off one of their players and it definitely won’t be the last. However, it’s such a brazen cover up that it almost feels insulting that the club genuinely thinks that people will believe this despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Then, to cap off one of the most thinly veiled deceptions in modern football since Joleon Lescott claimed to have tweeted a picture of a car after a 6-0 defeat from “inside his pocket”. Chelsea subsequently fined Kepa and dropped him to the bench for their next game. This disciplinary action is significantly at odds with the original party line that it just adds insult to injury and quickly and evaporatees any remaining belief that the misunderstanding story was true.
Make no mistake, Sarri didn’t come up with this line and – more than likely – didn’t even want to say it. It was almost certainly from the pen of some PR whizz who probably has an excellent theoretical knowledge of controlling a narrative, but who failed to actually understand football from a fan’s perspective. The truth is that fans understand that footballers are highly competitive and there’s no wonder that Kepa wanted to stay on the pitch to be the hero in the ensuing shoot-out. If he and Sarri had just come out and been honest then this situation would have soon blown over and been banished to the realms of pub quiz fodder.
This isn’t a dig at Sarri by any stretch of the imagination. It’s very likely that he was warned that if he didn’t sing from the lyric sheet he’d been given, he’d be thrown out onto King’s Road with his P45 in hand by Monday morning. In fact, he’s becoming an increasingly sympathetic figure at the club with this story being yet another example of the hierarchy seemingly contriving to make his job as difficult as possible at every opportunity.
The media reaction to this story was about as ludicrous as one has come to expect in the age of click-bait “journalism”. By all means Kepa deserved the punishment he got but the hand-wringing by the usual suspects of pundits and journalists who have carved out careers as professional contrarians were so over-the-top that it verged on comical. So much so that I was half-expecting someone to come out and say that he should be tied to a goalpost and executed by firing squad. For those of us who aren’t paid to spout random nonsense about every contentious topic though, it was fairly clear that the timeless “forgive and forget” tactic was the most rational option given the fraught circumstances that the incident happened under.
Fundamentally though, the whole football aspect of this is merely set dressing to what boils down to a story about value. Fortunately, given that money is effectively the only language that’s understood in football, it’s very easy to quantify the seemingly abstract concept of an individual’s value. It’s been reported that, were he to be sacked, Sarri’s pay-out would be in the region of £5 million which pales into insignificance when held up against the £71 million the club shelled out to bring Kepa to West London – a pretty compelling piece of evidence to show where their loyalty may ultimately lie.
By all measures this is a damning indictment of the modern game and the sordid role that money has within it. Instead of the club coming out to criticise a player who was in the wrong, they deliberately chose to outwardly side with the him over their manager and helped to perpetuate the story that there is a disconnect between the squad and the manager. Overall, the power balance at Chelsea has been skewed for many years and it’s now Sarri’s turn to suffer the consequences of a board that would sooner sack their manager rather than allow him to discipline the players effectively. Inevitably, this no-win situation will become untenable and he’ll be cut loose and it’ll become someone else’s job to try (and fail) to wrestle back control of this runaway train, then someone else’s, then someone else’s…