Maurizio Sarri has walked in Antonio Conte’s footsteps before, albeit when both of them were in very different stages of their career, rookie managers on the lookout for a lower-league job and one succeeding the other at the tiny Tuscan club Arezzo in 2006 and 2007.
It was a strange time for the team whose little stadium has Mount Pratomagno as a dramatic backdrop, with a sack-happy chairman and a Serie B season blighted by a disputed points deduction.
Conte began as coach for the 2006-2007 season, was sacked in October and returned in March. He very nearly saved Arezzo from relegation, only for Juventus, demoted to the second tier because of the calciopoli match-fixing scandal, to lose a game to Spezia which meant they, and not Arezzo, survived.
In between those two Conte spells came Sarri, a man with none of the cachet that Conte wielded as a great former Juventus and Italy midfielder. Conte worked hard at being a coach too, but he always had his playing hinterland, and after that season at Arezzo he never looked back.
For Sarri, the older of the two men by 11 years, with no playing experience, it was 13 years and around 10 jobs between his first amateur job at Tegoleto in 1999 and his appointment to Serie B side Empoli. He got them promoted in 2014 and kept them in Serie A against all the odds the following season before he was given the job that has propelled him on to the international stage: Napoli, and their unlikely challenge to the Juventus hegemony.
Plotting the course of Roman Abramovich’s nine permanent appointments to the seat of Chelsea manager (including the interim manager Rafael Benitez) is like the experience recalled by some of his guests who step aboard his private jets. None of them know where they are going until they arrive, with the only certainty that when they get there it will be expensive.
If it is to be Sarri then he will be the first without a single trophy to his name – even the hapless Avram Grant had won trophies in Israel. Roberto Di Matteo won the 2012 Champions League before his appointment became permanent.
When they have not been impulsive, as with Grant and Di Matteo, Chelsea’s appointments have been made with a track record of success in mind. They have gone for proven winners such as Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Benitez and Conte – even Andre Villas-Boas came with an armful of silverware from Porto.
At Napoli, Sarri was always likely to fight a losing battle against the financial power of Juventus, and yet he has finished second, third and second in his three seasons, while losing players including Gonzalo Higuain, who went to Turin. In the past that would not have been enough to get the Chelsea job, but the rules are changing. In a narrow field Sarri is arguably the standout candidate, with the long separation from Conte stalling Chelsea’s efforts to appoint someone. Their first choice, Mauricio Pochettino, has proved impossible to dislodge from Tottenham Hotspur.
Sarri’s side at Napoli played the kind of football that it was once assumed Abramovich wanted his Chelsea teams to play when winning was simply thought not enough for him. But the landscape is very different to those years, when the club had so much success that they could afford to be picky about the style.
There is no question that Sarri’s possession-heavy, intricate passing – “Sarri-ball” in Italy – is one of the closest approaches to that of Pep Guardiola. But if it is to work at Stamford Bridge there will need to be much more patience than was usually extended to managers in the past.
There are other difficult issues in appointing Sarri, not least his homophobic remark directed at Roberto Mancini, whom he called “a faggot” in 2016 when they argued on the touchline at the end of a Coppa Italia tie. In March this year he had to apologise to a reporter for saying to her: “You’re a woman, you’re beautiful, for those two reasons I won’t tell you to go f--- yourself.”
If Chelsea do appoint Sarri then they will have to address these incidents and this behaviour. Not just because it would be the right thing for any club to do, but also because of the bold declarations they made about diversity in the wake of their settlement with Eva Carneiro, their former doctor.
In the new era of the club, where they find themselves established among the elite but no longer willing to challenge the sovereign wealth fund clubs at the top of the transfer market, so Chelsea’s search for identity goes on.
Under the first 10 years of Abramovich they became relentlessly successful, and they have two trophies in the past two seasons, but they also need a manager prepared to work within their new structure. Chelsea will spend when they have to – a British record bid for Robert Lewandowski is on the cards – but they will not always be able to compete with others. It was a reality Conte has been unable to accept.
The planning and preparation for the construction of the new Stamford Bridge, which will be the most expensive stadium in the history of the English game, is currently on schedule. Who pays for it, and thus whether it ever gets built, is another question that remains unanswered. With the pressure now being exerted on Abramovich by the British government, it is hard to see any certainty over the outcome.
Into this club may walk a very different manager to the man who has preceded him, a coach with a different style, a former banker who only switched to coaching in his 40s. Sarri will, like his predecessors, believe that he can change Chelsea, and become the man who establishes himself. The club would like nothing more than a harmonious period of stability, but the challenges that lie ahead for both are significant.
Levy realises Pochettino is a man he cannot do without
There were only 11 days between Mauricio Pochettino laying down a very clear challenge to Daniel Levy, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman, over the future of the club after their final Premier League match against Leicester City and the Spurs manager signing a new five-year contract on Thursday.
In terms of playing his hand well, it can only be assumed that Pochettino has absolute certainty that the £150 million that The Daily Telegraph reported he asked for, will be his to spend on the squad.
Over the years, Levy has always worked on the basis that no one individual is indispensable, whether that is a manager or a player, and on the whole he has been proved right. But since Pochettino said at Wembley on May 13 that Spurs needed to “be brave and take risks” it seems that Levy has decided that, after all, there is one man he simply cannot do without.