And so Maurizio Sarri’s first season at Chelsea is over and it ended with silverware in the Europa League last Wednesday evening. A comprehensive second half performance delivered Maurizio Sarri his first trophy as a manager to round off what I think has been a pretty successful season. Yes, we had a wobble in January and February; results and performances were not good enough. But we achieved what I set out as my personal targets for a good season.
Thanks to Arsenal and Tottenham crumbling in the closing weeks of the season, we finished 3rd in the league meaning that we are automatically in the group stages of next season’s Champions League. But results like losing 6-0 to Manchester City and 4-0 to Bournemouth simply are not good enough. We had such a positive start, going unbeaten in the league for 13 games, whilst having to adapt to a brand new style of football. But damaging results away to Spurs and Arsenal and those two drubbings at City and Bournemouth rather knocked the team on their collective arse for a while. We were a long way off Liverpool and Manchester City and a lot of work will need to be done in the close season, especially if the transfer ban is upheld, or we don’t decide to appeal it.
We also reached the final of the League Cup, beating Liverpool and Spurs on the way to Wembley. We also went toe to toe with Manchester City in the final, outplaying them for large stretches of the 120 minutes that were played. Were it not for the width of a goalpost or Kepa getting a stronger hand on Aguero’s penalty, we might have won the shootout. But, penalty shootouts are a lottery. Experienced penalty takers can let nerves get the better of them as can goalkeepers. I think Sarri approached the League Cup very intelligently. He used it as a chance to see what some of the fringe and younger players could do, without leaving himself completely without options if things didn’t progress as hoped. Eden Hazard’s wonderful goal against Liverpool is proof of that.
I was disappointed with our performance in the FA Cup this season. As the holders, I felt we should have done a lot more in this competition. Going out in the fifth round to a resurgent Manchester United was less than ideal. We were on a run of less than impressive form but that is no excuse at all. It’s a massive game and the players should have been up for it. The games against Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday had been fairly run of the mill early round cup ties. The squad had been rotated, younger players and those on the fringes were given chances. But the game against United came at the worst time imaginable; they were on their hot streak of form after Jose Mourinho’s departure. We were on a run of poor results that had seen us drop out of the top four and the performance reflected that. We looked devoid of confidence and short of ideas. A better FA Cup campaign next season would be very welcome.
The Europa League was where our season really shone. Although we would all have preferred to have been in the Champions League, Sarri took the competition seriously enough that we were able to progress through the group stage, increasing the strength of the matchday squad as we got further and further towards Baku. Four players really took the opportunity given to them, Olivier Giroud, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen. Giroud ended up as the competition’s top goalscorer with 11, including the opening goal in the final. Both Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi used the chance to put in impressive performances and force their way into regular first-team action before both unfortunately suffered achilles injuries as the season drew to a close. I would have started both of them in the final if they had been fit, and they should be major parts of the plan for next season once they return. The same goes for Andreas Christensen. He played every single match of the Europa League campaign and stepped up in the league after Antonio Rudiger was ruled out for the rest of the season towards the end of April. It’s always a joy to win a trophy, no matter what perceived status it has attached to it, so I am really happy we won the Europa League this season. And ultimately we deserved to win it.
I think this season can only be classed as a success. For a new manager with a completely opposing style and philosophy to come in on such short notice (people forget how little time Sarri had with the squad in pre-season to work on implementing what he wanted to do) with only three signings all year, to take a side that had failed to meet expectations the previous season back into the Champions League, a League Cup final and to win the Europa League is a serious achievement for Maurizio Sarri and his staff. Not only did he manage to fulfil expectations, he managed to bring some academy players through to be in prime position to be at the heart of the team moving forward. It is many years since a Chelsea academy product secured a regular first-team spot, let alone two in one season. If Sarri does leave to take over at Juventus as is being reported, that will be his legacy.