Two weeks ago Kepa Arrizabalaga made a bit of a numpty of himself, his team and his manager. The voices of Twitter (and probably other social media) were loudly condemning him and demanding all kinds of action, from being dropped to being dropped from the space station. Sarri said it was all just a great big misunderstanding, and that was the end of it.
The player was dropped for a game and fined £195,000, one week’s pay. But it’s not one week’s pay like it is for you or I. For normal people one week without pay would mean not being able to pay bills. This isn’t the case for Kepa. It doesn’t even make a dent, but this isn’t about the finances of footballers, this is about suitable punishment, and money doesn’t even begin to factor in.
I’ve coached a few youth football teams and I’ve seen coaches badly attempt to correct behaviours. In fact, one coach I know makes kids do push-ups simply for losing the ball. Does it help? Of course not, it makes kids fearful and hate practicing. It takes away their love of the game. Other coaches make their players run laps if they lose. Again, this doesn’t encourage the things the coach wants to see, it makes kids fearful of losing a game. But even so, the consequences are temporary. The kids do their push-ups or running and they go back to playing a more careful game where they hope to not screw up.
But these are game-related behaviours where players are learning to improve their game, or in the case of the coach above, not be a worse player. What about those behaviours where decisions are made that aren’t directly game-related? The ones where a player decides to go rogue causing harm to the team. The ones where the player decides they won’t be subbed when the manager says. Or, in the case of youth soccer, the kid who is too good to come to practice, or if s/he does come, they don’t listen because they know more than the coach. What then?
You can’t fine a kid their weekly pocket money. Well, I suppose you could, but that’s a pretty slippery moral slope, even if that £5 has a bigger impact than Kepa’s £200k. The one thing that does work every time is playing time. Tell a kid that if they don’t go to practice they don’t get to play and they’re the first to arrive.
That’s sort of what Sarri did, but not exactly. What does one game sitting out mean to a player who knows they will be back for the next game? In fact, by choosing the next game Sarri let Kepa off the hook by letting him out of a difficult away game, and letting him ease back with an easier one. What lesson, if any, did Kepa learn? What was the consequence?
It could be argued that the biggest consequence Kepa had to deal with was Aguero laughing at him as the ball squirmed its way beneath him and into the back of the net. It’s one of those moments where you know you shouldn’t be doing whatever it is you’re doing and you get busted. Defying the coach and then being laughed at for losing – a much bigger consequence than being fined or sitting out a league game.
What could Sarri or any coach have done differently?
1. Assert your position as the leader. Let’s face it, a manager’s career at Chelsea is doomed from day one, so pandering to the players isn’t going to make a bit of difference. Walk away with some dignity.
2. Take control of the situation and don’t feed the fire. ‘This is an internal issue and I won’t be discussing it in the gutter press,’ would be a suitable way to maintain dignity and control.
3. Be strategic. This is especially true if you fully plan on bringing the player back for the next game. What message was sent to Caballero? Hey, I’m sorry you were treated badly but I’m going to use you for one game, and no matter how well you do, it’s just one game. Not inspiring is it?
4. Make it hurt. Chelsea still have a shot at the Europa League, if they make it to a final, drop him. Don’t even bring him on the bus. He watches the game from home, or down the pub, or his agent’s office. Anywhere but around the team. Also, drop him from the last home game of the season.
Football is a team sport, and unless the players are able to see the bigger picture, the team won’t succeed. Alex Ferguson built an empire around a team-first mentality, and it isn’t a fluke that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is taking a similar approach and seeing a resurgence. As I used to tell the kids in my teams, ‘If you don’t want to be a part of the team and work for your teammates, go play tennis.’