It is rare a draw equates to so many defeats. Chelsea performed so admirably for 120 minutes that they now have two-thirds of all clean sheets against Manchester City this season. They nonetheless lost the League Cup final. Maurizio Sarri’s standing suffered still further, his authority seemingly lost as Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to come off. The reputational harm spread to the goalkeeper, Chelsea’s insubordinate one.
If the ineffectual Sarri failed at crisis management, Chelsea's press office fared better. A damage-limitation exercise in which manager and goalkeeper each attributed their Wembley stand-off to a "misunderstanding" about how injured the Spaniard really was may attract few believers beyond the biased and gullible, but it was the best they could do in the circumstances. The evidence caught on camera was too convincing.
Other sights were also revealing. Jorginho, the season’s most symbolic player, missed his penalty. Gonzalo Higuain, the scorer of 323 goals for club and country, did not take one while three of the back four stepped up. Eden Hazard nonchalantly chipped his in to add to the sense he is too effortlessly good to stay amid such mediocrity and mess.
Yet, amid the question of mutiny or misunderstanding, the overriding issue reflects badly on both protagonists, however it is interpreted. Sarri’s assistant Gianfranco Zola supported him, and it has been overlooked that Arrizabalaga also ignored the wishes of arguably Chelsea’s greatest, most dignified and most beloved player, but he has rarely looked more alone. The abiding image of the beleaguered manager may be of him walking down the tunnel and, it seemed, out of Chelsea, even before the game was over.
Even the innocent explanation feels sadly telling: if it was a misunderstanding, it felt one of many. Chelsea’s players rarely seem to know what Sarri-ball actually is. Neither Sarri nor Chelsea seem to understand the other. Neither, perhaps, did their due diligence to understand what they were getting into. Communication has not been the Italian’s forte. He showed the frustrated powerlessness of one who could not get his message across. He looked ignored, irrelevant, impotent. He feels a dead man walking now.
A stubborn man nonetheless merits sympathy. It is harder to afford his goalkeeper any. Regardless of Arrizabalaga’s fitness, a manager has the right to substitute players. There were footballing grounds for a change. Willy Caballero, the designated replacement, won City a League Cup with his penalty-saving exploits. The watching Vincent Kompany did not want the Argentine to come on against his former teammates. His introduction could have given Chelsea a psychological edge. A penalty specialist has a better record from 12 yards than Arrizabalaga.
As it is, the Spaniard’s fine save from Leroy Sane seems destined to be forgotten; the shoot-out’s emblematic incident was when he dived over Sergio Aguero’s tame spot kick. The reality of Chelsea, where players outlast managers, where buying Arrizabalaga cost far more than sacking Sarri would, means he will not be drummed out of the club. Such is football’s realpolitik.
But Sunday brings more scrutiny on a player who is both the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and a major downgrade on his predecessor, Thibaut Courtois. Chelsea paid in part for potential and, like his compatriot David de Gea, who also had an awkward debut year in England, Arrizabalaga is young enough to transform perceptions. But he has been underwhelming. He was dismal in and culpable for the 6-0 thrashing by City. Among summer signings, Chelsea would have been better off in the short term with the cheaper Ben Foster or Rui Patricio. Instead they spent £72 million (Dh346m) on Arrizabalaga – at least twice his probable worth – and now, as a regime seems near its unedifying end, must be counting the cost.