Maurizio Sarri exposed Arsenal’s big post-Wenger mistake

29 May 2019, Azerbaijan, Baku: Soccer: Europa League Final FC Chelsea - FC Arsenal at the Olympic Stadium. Coach Maurizio Sarri (l) of Chelsea and Tainer Unai Emery of Arsenal before the game. Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa (Photo by Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images)
29 May 2019, Azerbaijan, Baku: Soccer: Europa League Final FC Chelsea - FC Arsenal at the Olympic Stadium. Coach Maurizio Sarri (l) of Chelsea and Tainer Unai Emery of Arsenal before the game. Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa (Photo by Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images) /

Maurizio Sarri exposed Arsenal’s biggest post-Wenger mistake during Chelsea’s 4-1 win in the 2019 Europa League final.

Arsenal’s “what have we done to ourselves?” moment came just before the 39th minute of Wednesday’s 4-1 defeat to Chelsea in the 2019 Europa League final.

The score was goalless at the time, the closest the Gunners would get to the trophy. Yet Chelsea offered an ominous warning of what was to come with a slick move that involved three players, smart movement and quick exchanges of positions and passes.

Eden Hazard, a two-goal hero for the Blues on the night, had drifted off his familiar left wing berth and moved central. The classy No. 10 slid a pass into Jorginho, who had broke from the base of midfield into the box.

Jorginho’s deft, one-touch layoff teed up former Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud. He dragged his shot somewhat and allowed Petr Cech to save well, but the pattern of the match was set: Chelsea would play all the football and be rewarded with the win.

Arsenal, on the other hand, consistently failed to click in possession. Build-up play was slow and predictable.

The Gunners’ pedestrian passing revealing how quickly they have gone from artful and enterprising to sluggish and unimaginative since Arsene Wenger stepped down as manager last April to be replaced by Unai Emery.

Wenger was oft-criticized but even his harshest detractors knew he stayed faithful to an expansive style of play. Arsenal have let the Frenchman’s abiding legacy fade fast by hiring a replacement not tethered to possession.

Here’s Emery speaking to James Olley of the London Evening Standard about priorities:

"The balance is to reduce — but not lose — our capacity to attack, while getting better in defence."

Purists of the beautiful game should blanche at the use of the word “reduce.”

Contrast Emery’s willingness to forego the ball with Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri’s demand for his players to own it. The Italian, who captured his first major trophy aged 60 Wednesday night in Baku, loves a possession-based game many have dubbed “Sarriball.”

Sometimes the term has been used to ridicule Sarri, but it was fitting and ironic his pass-heavy mantra capped Chelsea’s season in style and also showed the Gunners what they’ve given up.

The swift and fluid combination passing Wenger made a hallmark during 22 years in charge was the one thing his successor should have built on. For all of the inadequacies the latter years of Wenger’s tenure laid bare, Arsenal’s eye-catching possession game wasn’t a problem.

It means hiring Emery, a coach less interested in possession, to guide a team full of playmakers was a curious choice.

Consider how Arsenal’s most creative players have struggled under Emery this season. Mesut Ozil was typically forlorn in the final until he was hooked late on for promising academy graduate Joe Willock.

For all the things Ozil can’t or won’t do off the ball, press, track back etc., Emery hasn’t found ways to highlight the good things he does on it.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ozil moved on this summer. If so, he’d join Aaron Ramsey, another Wenger-schooled maestro, who is being allowed to join Juventus on a free transfer after Emery took too long to realize the Welshman’s value.

No Ozil and Ramsey next season would leave Arsenal’s squad looking distinctly workmanlike. It’s easy to think the passing will be slower still, incisive off-the-ball movement rarer and goals fewer.

Seeing Arsenal suffer such a rapid transformation from entertainers to serial bores would likely sting Wenger deeply. You suspect he felt a twinge of pain or two watching how Chelsea destroy his old club playing the kind of soccer he cherishes.

The Blues won by relying on a midfield defined by skill and guile over steel and grit. It was the inevitable outcome of Sarri’s fondness for making natural ball players central to his team.

Jorginho is the most obvious example, and the cultured Italy international didn’t disappoint in the final.

He was also helped Mateo Kovacic, the neat distributor Sarri loaned from Real Madrid last summer.

To add to the irony, Sarri’s smart users of the ball were able to out-Arsenal Arsenal by playing off one of Wenger’s former players, Giroud.

The towering center-forward is one of Wenger’s most underrated signings. His height and power belie the sophisticated range of touches he uses to link with runners and create chances for those around him.

Giroud headed Chelsea into the lead four minutes after the break to add to an awesome tally in this season’s competition:

As usual though, the Frenchman’s goal was overshadowed by the sheer quality of his link play. He combined brilliantly with Hazard and fellow winger Pedro, the way he used to with Ozil, Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott at Arsenal.

Giroud’s movement and precise touches helped win a penalty Hazard converted, and he also teed up the latter to score from open play.

Hazard had earlier released Pedro to score Chelsea’s second after another classy combination:

Sarri’s stars up top were displaying the kind of subtle movement and perceptive passing Arsenal became known for under Wenger.

There have been similar moments of magic since Emery took over:

However, it’s increasingly easy to view these sporadic outbursts of inspiration as the last vestiges of the fidelity to style Wenger imprinted on the club. Instead, Emery’s version of Arsenal threatens to become steadily more functional and less inspiring.

Sarri’s Chelsea won the Europa League as the top scorers in the competition. Wenger’s men held the same distinction in last season’s tournament, despite being eliminated at the semifinal stage by eventual winners Atletico Madrid.

Arsenal’s goals are also down domestically. The Gunners scored 74 goals in the Premier League during Wenger’s final season in charge, while Emery’s squad managed one fewer in the 2018/19 campaign.

The differences are slight but hint at the worrying change in style, one Emery seems happy to initiate. He recently offered the following assessment, per Sam Dean of The Daily Telegraph:

"Before Arsene Wenger, Arsenal was very competitive. With Wenger, it was very competitive and also he gave the team quality players, with a competitive spirit, who created the best moments in Arsenal. But in the last years they lost being competitive, keeping only the quality."

Emery risks ditching quality and being left with a team long on graft but short on guile. In doing so, he’s wasting the talents of Ozil, Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Moving away from the one thing Arsenal did well for more than two decades under Wenger has made an already difficult transition tougher still.

Next. Arsenal could face steep price for Europa League failure. dark

Arsenal don’t have the budget to completely overhaul the current playing staff and give Emery the grafters his pragmatism demands. So the remit has to be getting more from Ozil and Co., something only an attack-minded coach will do.

The Gunners’ mistake in not hiring a manager with similar stylistic leanings to Wenger looks set to make the next few seasons unspeakably drab for the north London club.