Chelsea: Maurizio Sarri Goldilocks’d his way right out of centre-backs – The Pride of London

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LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: David Luiz of Chelsea and Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea react during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield on April 14, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) Maurizio Sarri pushes some of his players to exhaustion and others to the door. Now Chelsea must further rely on a player in the first group – Cesar Azpilicueta – to be the back-up centre-back for the Europa League semifinal.For reasons either tactical or personal (is there a really a difference when we’re talking about Maurizio Sarri?), Sarri’s dislike of rotation has fallen hardest on the defence as a unit. Three of the five most-used outfield players are defenders (Jorginho and N’Golo Kante, obviously, are the others). At the other end of the scale, the three least-used, non-zero (i.e., not Danny Drinkwater) players are also defenders.Of those six defenders at either end of the minutes list, Chelsea are without three for the first-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt. Antonio Rudiger will be out of action for several months with a meniscus injury. This brings David Luiz into the Europa League line-up, where Andreas Christensen has played every minute.But for this game Maurizio Sarri cannot tab Gary Cahill for the bench, as he did twice in late April. Cahill picked up an Achilles injury in training. And since Ethan Ampadu is still recovering from the nondescript back injury that caused him to withdraw from Wales’ national team in March, Maurizio Sarri can only take two centre-backs – his two starters – to Germany. If Luiz or Christensen have to come off for any reason – and Luiz has been going down frequently in recent games –  Azpilicueta will slide over and Davide Zappacosta will take charge of the right side defence.Maurizio Sarri said at his pre-game press conference: “We’ve played 58 matches so injuries are typical. We were lucky previously but not in the last 10 days.”Not quite, my nicotine-stained friend.Chelsea have played 58 matches. It may seem like Sarri’s core players have played in all of them, but Cesar Azpilicueta has “only” played in 52 matches, Rudiger in 44 and Luiz in 45. Gary Cahill has played in seven and Ampadu in five.Players at either end of the playing minutes bell curve have similar injury risks, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. Obviously, someone who is playing 60 minutes or more 2-3 times each week is putting an enormous load on their body with minimal time to recover. Between the physical stresses, the increased opportunities for a contact injury (accidental or otherwise, Ander Herrera) and their increased vulnerability to damage from those stresses and contacts from lack of recovery, these are players you would expect to be injured.But training sessions with a Premier League football team are not like when the average person goes to the gym or gets in on a game. These players need to be in prime shape just to train at the level they need to train at.This – not learning Sarriball – is one reason why preseason conditioning is so important, and why coaches like Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone have extremely intense preseason programmes.The strength and conditioning staffs need to ensure that all players getting the appropriate loading every week to maintain their fitness for training and playing. Substitutes and unused players will often do a conditioning session after a game to match their workload to the players who played. This is how a full squad maintains match sharpness.Without all the various sessions, a player would be underprepared and at an increased risk of injury when he does join in a full-intensity training session or game. In this case, they are like everyone else. If you just went out right now to run a marathon having not run more than 10 miles in the last month, or a 100-meter sprint fresh off your couch, yeah, you’re going to hurt and you’re going to hurt yourself.The problem is no training session, no matter how well designed, how closely monitored by the staff and how motivated the player can approach the levels of mental and physiological intensity as a game. If you’re not playing in actual games, you’re not ready to play in actual games.We don’t know what caused Gary Cahill’s and Ethan Ampadu’s injuries. They could just be freak, “unlucky” injuries and coincidences. But it stands to reason that as they amped up their training – Cahill in preparation for rejoining the squad with Rudiger’s injury, and Ampadu to prepare for international duty in March – they were not ready for the intensity they undertook.It’s worth noting that Andreas Christensen is the median player when you look at Chelsea’s playing minutes. Maurizio Sarri has used 25 players this season: Christensen has the 13th most minutes, and his slight Danish frame is now shouldering a lot of responsibility.Most coaches work to not have such a dramatic difference between their most- and least-used. That bell-curve is much flatter, usually a gradient. And for Chelsea as a whole, it is. But for the defenders, there are two sets of extremes and Andreas Christensen in the middle.Goldilocks found her three bowls of porridge to be too hot, too cold and just right. Maurizio Sarri has overcooked one batch of defenders and underprepared another, leaving him short-handed in both groups. Christensen is apparently the one who came out “just right,” or something close to it, since he should have had many more Premier League minutes this season.In any event, the bears eventually came home and ate Goldilocks. If Sarri is Goldilocks and bears are Russian, you can finish torturing this metaphor on your own.
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