Gamesmanship at the heart of the Chelsea debacle

Chris Henderson, 25 February 2019

Everybody knows what happened in the dying minutes of extra-time at Wembley on Sunday. Since then, many have flip-flopped their opinion like Jamie Redknapp after a withering look from John Terry.

In the immediate aftermath, the general consensus was that Maurizio Sarri was grossly undermined by a spoilt, young (albeit 24-year-old) goalkeeper.

Most observers poured sympathy on Sarri like a lame dog. He nearly walked out of the stadium but had a sudden moment of clarity and walked back to face the music as though midway through an argument with his wife. No matter what the circumstances, you have to follow the orders of the manager. Player power gone mad, you see.

Gamesmanship and bad planning were at the heart of the ‘misunderstanding’

All of which I agree with. But there is some truth in Sarri’s claim of a ‘misunderstanding’ even though, at first, it sounded like a weak excuse.

Gamesmanship and bad planning were at the heart of the ‘misunderstanding’ that Sarri refers to. The goalkeeper spent large portions of the match wincing with cramp.

Aside from the obvious question of how a goalkeeper can suffer from cramp, he looked injured. The dark arts of running down the clock have become so commonplace that not even the player’s management team know if he’s faking it or not.

As Willy Caballero readied himself for action on the touchline, it occurred to the watching world that this was the right call, whether or not Kepa Arrizabalaga was injured or not.

Caballero has, on several occasions, almost single-handedly won penalty shoot-outs. Even Vincent Kompany admitted after the match that bringing on the ex-City man for the shoot-out would have been a solid piece of ‘mind games.’

A happy accident

But that’s exactly it, it all felt like an unplanned, happy accident. It was clearly not Chelsea’s plan prior to the game to bring on Caballero for the penalty shoot-out, but it should have been.

Once Arrizabalaga had gestured to the bench that he, in fact, was simply feigning injury and was fine to continue, chaos ensued. The management team still weren’t sure whether or not he was playing through injury.

Of course, in the post-match interview Sarri should have cut the goalkeeper adrift. Oh yes, really point the finger at him. Blamed the whole debacle on the young man, pinned climate change on him if necessary and pondered why it was so warm in mid-February. Questioned his temperament in the big games. Highlighted his unruliness and incapacity to be managed at the top level.

But he didn’t. He bottled it. Which is, of course, why Chelsea are in this power-struggle mess in the first place.

Sarri’s days appear to be numbered at Stamford Bridge regardless of how this season pans out, but I, for one, would like to see him go out fighting.

The debate will go on and on, but there is a wider issue here about gamesmanship and just how far it can be stretched in football. Currently, it’s being stretched to breaking point.

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Chris is the founder of The Football Brief. He runs our regular series and can usually be found waxing lyrical about Blackburn Rovers and R9.

By |2019-02-25T19:24:07+00:00February 25th, 2019|

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