Perhaps the most hurtful thing for Maurizio Sarri is that Kepa Arrizabalaga was his guy. Chelsea had been lining up Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland in the summer, aware that Thibaut Courtois could leave and, like any sensible club, doing due diligence to ensure they were prepared.
Then in came Sarri, saying that Kepa was the one, so when Courtois forced his way, leaving as Chelsea predicted, in came the Athletic Bilbao keeper for a world record fee.
Just what the new manager needed: a couple of expensive allies who would stick by his side among the older heads less convinced by a 59-year-old who had never reached a major cup final nor won a trophy. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper and Jorginho, his star man at Napoli, bought for not much less.
Then there Kepa was, out on the field six months later, dishing out one of the most public humiliations ever of a high-profile football manager, in front of 80,000 watching at Wembley, booing and whistling, and the millions worldwide.
It was telling that only one player walked over to Kepa to back up Sarri while the player was having that long-range row with their manager. It took 20 seconds before centre-back David Luiz strolled over and said something. His hand was covering his mouth, in that way that all footballers appear to talk on the pitch nowadays, but it certainly wasn’t “get the f*** off the pitch”, which Sarri appeared to be yelling from the sidelines, because Kepa stayed there. Luiz nipped back again a few moments later, to again not order Kepa off the pitch.
Where was captain Cesar Azpilicueta in all this, the manager’s voice, eyes and ears on the pitch? “I was on the other side of the pitch,” he said afterwards. That one deserves a slow handclap.
Asked about it afterwards, Luiz described the incident as a “misunderstanding”. Sarri also called it a “misunderstanding”, several times. Kepa’s take on the situation: “I think it was misunderstood.”
You guys, the millions of you out there, don’t get it, they were all saying. You won’t understand. You never played the game.
It was clever: the great PR machine firing up, chuntering along, not caring if nobody believes a word it spews. But we aren’t stupid. Even in realtime with dramatic events unfolding quickly, it was clear what was going on. Watching back on what is probably an illegal replay on YouTube it’s even clearer.
Sarri looks at his watch. He is not stupid, either. He knows penalties are looming and on the bench he has Willy Caballero, a penalty-saving expert, who spent three years playing with many of the players who are about to take penalties against them. What a psychological advantage that would be, he’s thinking. Not realising he is just about to hand the psychological advantage to his opponents, in spades.
Kepa waves him away, but Sarri shakes his head, wags his finger and rolls his hands over each other to indicate it’s time to go. Kepa has other ideas, and we all know what happens next.
If they are able to photoshop a can of Carabao into Sarri’s hand as he absolutely loses it on the touchline, it would be a great advert for the energy it can induce.
The company’s slogan is “The Fighting Spirit”, after all, and Chelsea were the epitome of that on Sunday.
On reflection, there are holes in Sarri’s hurriedly cobbled-together argument. He claimed that he understood the misunderstanding when the doctors arrived back on the bench. Yet during the short pre-shootout break, he still had to be restrained by Antonio Rudiger and you can be sure he was not desperately trying to reach Kepa to explain that he now understood the misunderstanding, as they all appeared to afterwards.
Player revolts during matches are so rare. Plenty happens behind the scenes, when the public aren’t looking, occasionally making it out into the open when a disgruntled player, or a disgruntled player’s agent, lifts the veil temporarily for a journalist. But so rarely do they play out in the spotlight, and even rarer in a cup final. It is an unwritten rule: the first rule of falling out with your manager is, never fall out with your manager on the pitch.
When Carols Tevez refused to come on for Manchester City in a Champions League match against Bayern Munich in September 2017, manager Robert Mancini said afterwards “he is finished” and “if I have my way he will be out”.
The striker was put on gardening leave and only returned to the team five months later when they were unable to sell him in the January window.
What did Tevez say? “I believe my position may have been misunderstood.” There we go again. It’s us, not them.