The man who they dub stubborn. Obstinate. The manager who just won’t change. Who calls out Eden Hazard. Who questions Roman Abramovich. The one who stares down every pundit in the game over N’Golo Kante’s role. Now he’s playing politics? Now, when he says he won’t discipline Kepa Arrizabalaga. There’ll be no fine. No axe. Certainly no transfer-listing. Now when Sarri admits he has a share in the blame for Wembley’s meltdown. Now we’re not supposed to believe him?
Yes, it looked bad. Even terrible. A young goalkeeper defying his manager. A manager screaming. Gesticulating angrily on the sidelines. All while his young keeper refused to be substituted.
But in the aftermath. At the post-match presser. Even after seeing the Carabao Cup final lost. Sarri was in a jovial mood. This wasn’t the Sarri of Arsenal. He smiled. He joked. He even enjoyed a playful dig at those sitting in front of him.
“It was a big misunderstanding,” Sarri insisted. “I understood the goalkeeper had cramp, and was unable to go to the pens, but the problem was not cramp, so he was able to go to the penalties.”
The Italian also insisted there was no tactical plan to change Kepa for shootout specialist Willy Caballero. His anger only stemming from knowing if Kepa suffered cramp with penalties in full swing, their Cup chances were over.
“As I say to the goalkeeper, he understood that I asked for a change for his physical problem, he said, ‘I haven’t a physical problem’ and so he was right I think.”
But there remained the spectacle. The craziness. Kepa aggressively insisting he didn’t need to go off. And both Sarri and his No2 Gianfranco Zola demanding he do so. And while general opinion is right when insisting Kepa should have accepted the manager’s command. From his point of view, the decision was made on fitness. There was no pre-match or halftime instruction about making way for Caballero. For Kepa – and Sarri – this was a call made on that “physical problem”. And if the player says he’s fit to go on. And the team doctor says the same. Then from the player’s angle his insistence that he continue is understandable.
Jose Mourinho, who was at Wembley in his new capacity as roving pundit, summed things up perfectly. This was no easy situation. With no simple explanation.
“On the one hand, the goalkeeper wants to show his confidence, he wants to show his personality and I like it,” said the former Chelsea manager. “But I do not like to leave the coach and all the staff in a situation like that, even saddened by the fact that even (Willy) Caballero was in a difficult situation, it saddens me a lot, it’s very complicated.”
Sarri acknowledged how it appeared to those of us on the outside looking in. And revealed he’d reminded Kepa that perception can quickly turn into reality in this industry – and particularly with this media.
“Kepa was right, but in the wrong way I think, in the wrong way in the way he behaved and conducted himself, but mentally he was right, he was able to go to penalties.
“(But) He needs to understand that for misunderstanding we can get in trouble, especially with you [media]!”
Which is exactly what Chelsea’s No1 was experiencing last night and this morning after that wink at the end of extra-time. The wink seen across the world. The one portrayed as a sure sign of a player getting one over his manager. Of who really is in control.
Or simply, it could’ve been a wink to Chelsea fans. And those of his in the Basque country. Letting them know. Just as he did with his manager. That there was no cramp. And both physically and mentally he was ready for the shootout.
Indeed, coming away from Wembley last night, two bigger issues emerged for Sarri than his young goalkeeper stepping over the line.
The reaction of his captain to the whole affair will have disappointed the Italian. Cesar Azpilicueta effectively went MIA. The Spaniard even sheepishly claimed he didn’t see anything of the exchange. Never mind ignoring the need – as captain – to get himself involved. No matter the excuses, the manager was let down by Azpilicueta at that crunch moment.
Another issue which may need confronting is Callum Hudson-Odoi and comments attributed to him by the Spanish press.
“I support Kepa in this, I did not think he should be substituted,” Hudson-Odoi is quoted saying, “he has played the whole game and his confidence was high. I do not agree with the goalkeepers being substituted before the penalty shootout.”
For the moment, their English counterparts have missed it, but the teen’s comments – if confirmed – do have the potential of creating more problems between he and his manager.
But for now, it’s about Kepa and his “conduct”. A flashpoint Sarri is confident his young goalkeeper will learn from. And if he doesn’t, well, then we’ll see how accurate those claims of caving into player power really are.