It’s Community Shield time! And for once, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will find themselves slightly overshadowed. Yes, they’ll probably be the better side, and yes, they’ll probably win. But are they going to be as interesting as Chelsea? Not a chance.
For this season, Chelsea are taking a step into the unknown. Previously, Roman Abramovich has been fairly predictable when it comes to appointing managers. Either he goes looking for the next big thing — successfully with Jose Mourinho, less so with Andre Villas-Boas — or he defaults to a big name coach with experience, and a bag full of silverware.
But his latest appointment, Maurizio Sarri, doesn’t quite fit into either category. At 59 years old, with a wonderfully long list of small Italian clubs behind him, he’s nobody’s idea of an up-and-comer. And his honours roll reads: second place in Serie B with Empoli, survival in Serie A with Empoli, nearly winning the league with Napoli, and playing loads of sexy football along the way. None of those things come with a trophy, though the last definitely should.
Perhaps there are some unexamined assumptions at work here: how we think about potential and success. The careers of players are naturally dictated by age, which does horrible things to knees and backs and hamstrings. Even goalkeepers generally have to tap out by the time 40 rolls around.
Elite-level management also seems to favour the relatively young. In seven of the last 10 seasons, the Champions League-winning manager has been in their 40s, and one of the exceptions to that was Pep Guardiola, who was 38 when his Barcelona side beat Manchester United in 2009. Sarri will be the oldest manager in the Premier League’s big six, and the second-oldest, Jose Mourinho, is looking very tired these days.
But management is a job of the brain and the mouth. If it’s a youngish managers’ game, generally speaking, then there is at least the possibility of a late blossoming, given the right moment and circumstances. And Sarri’s career does rather suggest that a blossoming of sorts is underway.
For Napoli haven’t just been good over the last couple of seasons; they’ve been good in all the right ways. Exciting, attacking football, of the kind enjoyed by everybody these days (except Mourinho). High up the pitch, craving the ball, passing like panicked Mastermind contestants, and shooting, shooting, shooting.
It works, too, by every standard except the silver one. Last season Napoli gave Serie A a proper title race, which hasn’t happened in a while. Perhaps pushing Juventus as hard as they did is, on some abstract level, a greater achievement than winning the title as Juventus. It’s certainly rarer.
So: promising, but not in the youthful way; successful, but not in the tangible way. And this in the world of elite Premier League clubs, where a heavy CV is the norm. Abramovich never explains himself, so we can only guess, but this looks like an appointment made with nods towards style, entertainment, and maybe — given how well Sarri has coached Napoli’s players — finally making some use of all these young prospects that Chelsea have been amassing.
It’s always possible that no weightier CV was available. Chelsea have followed a strange season with a strange summer: no Champions League football coming, modest transfer activity, and Antonio Conte hanging around, sacked-but-not-actually-sacked for ages. Meanwhile, the new stadium won’t be happening. You could understand coaches being a little wary.
Regardless, it’s the most leftfield appointment that a Champions League aspirant has made since Manchester United decided to bet the house on David Moyes. As managers, the two don’t have much in common beyond their empty trophy cabinets. But there’s the same sense: a gamble made in the hope that a coach can make the step up. In a predictable league, it’s a roll of the dice. And it should make for compelling entertainment, however it goes.