There’s a story about an experiment on monkeys in which a banana is placed at the top of a ladder, but every time a monkey climbs the ladder to get the banana they’re soaked with a hose. Eventually other monkeys are added and the monkey who’s been assaulted with the hose stops other monkeys from climbing the ladder. Eventually, the first monkey, the only one to be hosed, is removed from the cage but the other monkeys still don’t go after the banana. In fact, even though they don’t know why, they even prevent other monkeys who arrive later from climbing the ladder.
The story isn’t completely real (it’s loosely based on a 1967 experiment by Gordon Stephenson), but it demonstrates how a negative culture perpetuates itself. These days we don’t need to do social experiments about dysfunctional cultures on monkeys; we have footballers. To be more specific, we have Chelsea’s footballers.
Chelsea’s record signing, goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, decided he was going to continue playing through a non-injury that had twice required medical assistance. The coach, as any good coach would do, arranged a substitution for what he believed was an injury to the player. Why wouldn’t he? It’s not like players fake injury ever, is it?
As the sports writers create headlines and stories for the papers the main question people will ask is who, if anyone, is in charge of the Chelsea team? It certainly isn’t the manager. In fact, there is a strong argument to suggest that a manager hasn’t actually been in full control of the Chelsea dressing room since August 8th 2015.
This was the day Mourinho publicly lambasted his physiotherapy team who left shortly after. The team had an abysmal season, Mourinho was sacked in December having lost 9 of 16 games, and the team, who had won the Premier League and League Cup double the year before, positionally in the mid-teens.
The surprising thing is that since Mourinho’s departure that December the club has been through 3 more managers (Hiddink, Conte and Sarri), and one caretaker (Holland). Chelsea have offered a total 10.5 years of contracts to their managers in the past 5.5 years, 4 to Mourinho, 0.5 to the end of the season for Hiddink, 3 to Conte and another 3 to Sarri. Not one of them has seen their contract to completion. Sarri is unlikely to see the end of his and the next manager, unless he can clean house, is likely to face the same fate.
This is where the monkeys come in. The problem at Chelsea is that there are too many people who think they are leaders, but no one actually being a leader, or even supporting the person who is supposed to be. They all follow the same pattern that began several years back when a physio was badly treated. Most of them probably don’t even know why they don’t listen to the coach; it’s just in their culture.
'I told him to respect the decision of the coach' David Luiz on what he tried to tell Arizzabalaga during the game
But the manager also buys into that culture. In the interview after the 2019 League Cup loss to Manchester City, Sarri could have channeled his inner Ferguson and ranted in some form of broken English about disrespect and shipping the player off to the other side of Hades. But that didn’t happen. The evidence, apparent to all, was that he had a player, who instead of communicating with his manager, decided that a public display of outright defiance was the correct response.
Kepa is lucky he isn’t living in the era of Brian Clough. Record signing or not, he’d have been dragged off the field by his ears, kicked in the backside, made to apologise to every supporter for every sin he had ever committed, forced to wash the cars of every member of staff at the club, and then walk home. And he would have been thankful for getting off so lightly. Cloughie would have eaten the banana and whipped the person with the hose to within an inch of their life.
What did Sarri do? He said it was all just a misunderstanding and he didn’t understand the nature of the situation. Kepa said it was a misunderstanding, and they all move on. Player power. There was no misunderstanding, and whether the decision was right or wrong, the board went up with Kepa’s number, the manager requested a substitution, and the player refused in the most unprofessional way imaginable.
The only thing Sarri didn’t understand was that at Chelsea it is the players, not the manager who calls the shots. It’s been that way since they discovered they could, and until the board is able to see what is clear to everyone, it will continue to be that way.
Albert Camus once said ‘A slave begins by demanding justice, and ends by wanting to wear a crown.’ In the case of Chelsea, since August 2015 this could easily be rephrased as ‘A player begins by demanding the sacking of their manager, and ends by publicly humiliating himself, the manager, the club, and making a spectacle of the sport.’