I don’t recall ever seeing anything like it, not even at lower levels of competition, let alone in a televised Wembley final. Deep into extra time of Sunday’s League Cup Final under-fire Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri, having seen his goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga twice go down with cramp, opted to replace him with sub keeper Willy Caballero as the seconds ticked away toward the inevitable penalty shootout. Yet Arrizabalaga refused to heed the call, waving away the implorations of his manager and assistant Gianfranco Zola to leave the field.
Even forgetting for a second that Caballero has a reputation as something of shootout specialist having secured the very same trophy with three saves for Sunday’s opponents against Liverpool just three years previously, as well as ignoring the obvious question of how a goalkeeper could be struck down by cramp when all of the outfield players seemed capable of lasting the pace; what Chelsea’s goalkeeper did on Sunday evening was unacceptable. Despite Arrizabalaga’s subsequent clearly stage-managed ‘apology’ his actions point to the ever-increasing shift in the balance of power towards the players and away from clubs and their appointed managers.
Chelsea have subsequently fined their rebel goalkeeper a week’s wages which will be donated to the club’s charitable foundation, yet one wonders whether the player himself will even notice? Let alone view it as sufficient punishment to prevent him from ever doing something similar again? As the most expensive goalkeeper ever signed at £71 million, and being just 24 years old in a position where players don’t usually peak until their late twenties/ early thirties, Arrizabalaga knows the investment the club has made in him is too big for them simply to jettison him. The fact that he was dropped on Wednesday night against Tottenham, at least shows an attempt by the manager to restore some semblance of control over a dressing room that he is reportedly rapidly losing control of.
The club themselves are trying to brush off the whole farcical situation as a simple ‘misunderstanding’, pull the other one we’ve been here before with Chelsea! Previous manager Antonio Conte infamously had a very public bust-up with Diego Costa, which eventually saw the influential striker exit Stamford Bridge in acrimonious circumstances and re-join Atletico Madrid after going AWOL back home in Brazil.
We need only think back a few years to when Carlos Tevez of Manchester City flatly refused Roberto Mancini’s instruction to warm up in a Champions League match at Bayern Munich and then disappear off to Argentina for three months seemingly without the club’s permission; and it is plain to see that player power has been an issue for a significant period of time.
Despite leading Leicester City to a scarcely believable title triumph, Claudio Ranieri found himself clearing his office less than a year later, allegedly as a result of certain high-profile players stabbing him in the back by telling tales to the owners.
Far be it from this author to ever naturally sympathise with the erstwhile Manchester United and twice Chelsea manager, but Jose Mourinho in his first public utterance since being sacked, said: “We are not in a time any more where the coach, by himself, is powerful enough to cope and to have a relationship of education and sometimes confrontation with players who are not the best professionals.” It isn’t too much of a stretch of our investigative skills to assume that he may have been referring to a certain French midfielder, brought to Old Trafford for a world record fee, with whom he reportedly had several high-profile and very public disagreements.
In the end the United hierarchy came down on the side of Paul Pogba, probably because given the choice the player, his profile and commercial value were much more important to them than replacing a manager who never really felt like the right fit.
Such are the frankly eye-watering investments made in players these days that clubs see them in terms of ‘corporate assets’. Managers are employed to get the best out of the squads that they either assemble or more likely inherit, failure to deliver sufficiently or swiftly enough carries only one result, the exit door.
Speaking back in October long-serving former Arsenal manager and bitter rival of Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, suggested that the modern international football fanbase is more interested in supporting, or indeed following, individual players than clubs, saying: “if Ronaldo leaves Real Madrid for Juventus, the fans follow him to Juve… this hands a lot of power to the players. Neymar has some 170 million followers. He alone is stronger than the league.”
Where will it all end? Frighteningly Wenger went on to suggest that he could foresee a time in the not too distant future when fans will be allowed an influence on which players are replaced: “In the next five years, it might happen that social media substitutes players during a match. They’ll have a hook-up at half-time and determine which players get substituted and who will be brought on during the second half. This will happen.” Call me old fashioned, but I for one can only hope that Le Professeur is wrong, worryingly for all of us football traditionalists though he rarely is in these types of prediction!