Baku or bust? The issues facing Sarri and Emery as final showdown looms | Football


What have they done well this season?

Maurizio Sarri Chelsea finished third in the Premier League to qualify for next season’s Champions League, which fulfilled the key demand placed on the head coach upon his appointment last July. In the context of last year’s relative toils under Antonio Conte, as well as the mid-term slump this time when their away form collapsed (and they won one of their last five top-flight games), that represents something of an achievement. Throw in the fact they have also reached the Carabao Cup and Europa League finals and Sarri’s assessment, that this season “has been good and, if we win in Baku, would be wonderful”, is far from outlandish. At plenty of other clubs, it would already be considered a triumph.

Unai Emery The question cannot be answered with clarity until the early hours of Thursday morning in Baku. Reaching the Europa League final is creditable, and they have shown some great performances and character along the way, but Emery needs a triumphant ending to avoid harsh questions about how his team blew a top-four finish in the Premier League. Although there has not been enough consistency, some aspects have progressed. In a nutshell: Arsenal have improved in the big games, integrated some new talent such as Lucas Torreira, Mattéo Guendouzi and Bernd Leno, and found a way for their strongest assets up front, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, to flourish together.

What could have gone better for them?

Sarri The disconnect between the head coach and the support has undermined his position. The football, while effective in periods, has been unrecognisable from his latter days at Napoli. It has been a plod, prompting abusive chants first aired during the defeat by Manchester United in the FA Cup. There is no patience for a work in progress. The Italian would point to a lack of training time, either through the disruption of last summer or the cluttered schedule thereafter. A full pre-season may make a difference. Yet his public criticisms of the recent trip to Boston – while understandable on a footballing level – and his low profile around the charity fixture and associated events will not have endeared him to Roman Abramovich.

Emery That woeful end-of-season slump means it is Baku or bust in terms of Champions League qualification. Having put themselves into a strong position in the Premier League, some poor team selections and feeble performances kiboshed that option. One point from home games against Crystal Palace and Brighton will not easily be forgiven if they do not win the Europa League. Taking a broader view, it is still not entirely clear what Emery’s style or plan really is. Defensively they remain a work in progress, the midfield lacks creativity and genuine goal threat from wide positions, and the team are still at times too passive.

Have they got the most out of the players at their disposal?

Sarri This group have struggled to play with the pizzazz of Sarri’s Napoli. Jorginho was supposed to set the tempo but has spent the season adjusting to new surroundings alongside players unfamiliar with the head coach’s philosophy, while N’Golo Kanté, a two-times Premier League-winning defensive midfielder and a world champion, has operated on the right of a three. That has rarely felt a good use of his qualities. The recruitment of Gonzalo Higuaín in January feels similarly misguided given his lack of impact. The coach did coax the best from Eden Hazard at times, not least through clever selections early on after his summer workload, and eventually (albeit almost reluctantly) lent on the talent of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. They felt established before achilles injuries cruelly checked progress.

Emery Context is really important here. Emery inherited a squad that contained a number of problem areas and then had to contend with losing three important players to season-ending injuries. Not easy circumstances. The mission to get the best out of individuals is linked to the health of the collective. Is it Emery’s fault that Mesut Özil’s assist numbers are down? Or that Granit Xhaka is prone to switching off defensively? Or that Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi can be hit and miss when it comes to end product? Consistency of performance has been difficult to achieve but this is nothing new. Despite all that, Emery has done well to establish a formula that plays to the strengths of Aubameyang and Lacazette, which has got them to this point.

Gonzalo Higuaín has failed to impress since joining in January.

Gonzalo Higuaín has failed to impress since joining in January. Photograph: David Klein/Reuters

Have they managed to forge a strong bond with the players?

Sarri Only with some. David Luiz has spoken glowingly of the Italian’s approach, though he had been an outcast over the last few months of Conte’s tenure and must be grateful to be involved. While Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek were on the fringes, their futures were in serious doubt; permitting either academy graduate to leave would have sent out a dismal message. The marginalisation of the club captain, Gary Cahill, and, to a lesser extent, Danny Drinkwater has not sat easily with some senior figures in the dressing room. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s very public tantrum at Wembley, refusing to be substituted late in extra time in the Carabao Cup final, seemed to lay bare a lack of respect for the head coach’s authority.

Emery The hangover from his difficult relationship with Neymar while manager of PSG seemed to float around in the beginning when he was trying to stamp some authority. Early-season Emery tried to take a hard line with Özil and the outgoing Aaron Ramsey before relaxing his stance. It has been a challenge to keep Aubameyang and Lacazette inspired when both have had spells on the bench, while it was hard to figure out a way to play them together and maintain a semblance of balance behind them. There seems to be enough respect for Emery from the players – but for the stars of the team, a lot hinges on whether they return to the Champions League.

How important is it to win the Europa League final?

Sarri The Italian needs to claim a first major trophy at an elite club. Chelsea were enticed by his playing style, which he has yet to implement properly, but still need to be convinced they have a natural-born winner. Success in Azerbaijan would arm Sarri with evidence he can deliver silverware, though it may still not be enough to save him. This is a club in flux, contemplating how to deal with Fifa’s two-window transfer ban and wondering whether the current squad will be able to impose Sarriball on the Premier League. Even now, murmurings persist that Chelsea would not stand in his way if Juventus or Roma were willing to buy out his £5m-a-year contract. Baku could still be farewell.

Emery This is a matter of colossal importance and is a big factor in the psychology of the game – because Chelsea have a Champions League ticket in their pocket. It is hard to overstate how much is at stake in terms of Arsenal’s strategic plans. Their transfer budget might differ by around £60m depending on which European competition they will be in. Winning a trophy would be very welcome in itself and proof that they can still be a successful cup team, which Wenger specialised in towards the end. A first European trophy since 1994 would mean a lot on many levels.

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