Kepa vs Sarri, Disrespect in Football and the Player/Manager Power Shift.
Football (and sport in general), throughout the years, has managed to conjure up some wonderfully entertaining tantrums, flare-ups and spats. The most recent of which occurred during the 2019 Carabao Cup Final between Manchester City and Chelsea. In the latter stages of the game, Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri signalled to replace the goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabilaga, yet Kepa seemingly refused to depart the field of play. The defiance led to fury from Sarri, yet Kepa did not yield and continued to play – the game then went to penalties, where Chelsea went on to lose the shoot-out.
Following the game, Sarri labelled the situation a “misunderstanding” due to Kepa’s possible injury. Kepa echoed this explanation and apologised for his actions, yet he was dropped to the bench for the following league game against Tottenham Hotspur and fined a week’s wages for his misdemeanour. From the quick flash of fire in Sarri’s reaction, to the quickly fading embers of a somewhat lenient punishment, questions have risen: was the situation handled correctly, what does this illustrate about where the power in football lies and have we ever seen anything quite like this?
When looking at incidents of player revolt and disrespect, a direct comparison to this incident is hard to come by. When looking at substitution issues, the worst reactions we have seen have included: slowly departing the field, the player shaking their head in disbelief, players not shaking the manager’s hand, kicking bottled or chairs and on occasion even walking straight down the tunnel. However, it is unheard of for a player to refuse to come off all together. Chelsea legend John Terry, reiterated the absurdity of the situation saying that, “Once your number goes up you have to come off and show a bit of respect… Deal with that after.”
Arsenal manager, Unai Emery, believes that it is “normal” for players to be unhappy with being substituted and that he “wants the players to be angry when I decide to not play them and have ambition to help the team and stay on the pitch.” This would be the case of most managers and coaches; emotions are a part of football and when players show their emotions, it proves that they care. However, there must be a clear distinction between desire/emotion and an utter lack of respect and obedience towards those in a position of authority. In our everyday working life, we may be asked to do things by our manager/boss that we don’t want to do, or don’t agree is the best thing to do. We would not refuse to do it; we would not make a scene of defiance in front of all the staff – and if we did, we would definitely have to find a new place to work.
An example of disrespect by the players comes from an example just north of ‘The Bridge’, at Spurs. In 2015, after Andros Townsend (then a Tottenham winger) had a verbal and physical argument with a fitness coach, Mauricio Pochettino laid down the law and banished him from training – and eventually sold him to Newcastle United. “When you behave in the wrong way you always need to pay. It’s always my decision when he is available again to be part of the squad”, Pochettino said. “Discipline for me is very important…when you cross the limit it is important to stop that…The staff need to show respect to the player and the player needs to show respect to the staff.” This is an example of a manager not allowing a player to believe that their power supersedes that of those who are seemingly higher in the hierarchy.
The worry in football is that perhaps, in recent years, the players have gathered a greater proportion of power than they ought to have. The differences between the handling of the situation at Spurs and the present one at Chelsea is stark. This may merely be an insight to the differing success of managers Sarri and Pochettino. However, perhaps a more alarming possibility is that – in the space of a mere 4 years – the player/manager power ratio has dramatically changed. This sentiment has been echoed by managerial legend, Arsene Wenger: “Footballers played for the club 20 years ago,” Wenger told German newspaper Bild. “These days, clubs do everything for the players”. Wenger went on to say that “In the past, [a player] felt guilty when he played bad. These days, clubs feel guilty towards their players and ask themselves what more can be done.” “But if Ronaldo leaves Real [Madrid] for Juventus, the fans follow him to Juve. The international base is more interested in players than in clubs…This hands a lot of power to the players.”
The incident in the Carabao Cup Final provides eye-opening insight into the issues that have grown from the modern culture in football and society as a whole. From a coach’s perspective, the drama that unfolded will have been Sarri’s worst nightmare. However, the handling of the situation wreaked of weakness. After an impressive display against Manchester City, Sarri was in prime position to lay down the law – and after Caballero performed well in the following game it was the perfect opportunity to keep Kepa away from the squad until he earned his place back. Immediately after the handling of the situation, there was a large degree of worry over Sarri’s position at the club. Sarri has since managed to steady the ship, yet there is one worry that remains on the tip of the footballing world’s tongue: what does this mean for the future relationships between players and managers. The comments of Wenger lurk ever ominously throughout the sport and leave us asking how can we readdress the balance? Players are important, but respect is paramount.