Chelsea squad under Sarri react differently than teams in my day – Zola

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LONDON — Gianfranco Zola has said that this Chelsea squad reacts differently to defeat than the teams he played in during his time at Stamford Bridge, but insisted that Maurizio Sarri remains confident of teaching them to respond in the way he wants.

Chelsea got back to winning ways with a 2-1 victory over Malmo in the Europa League round of 32 on Thursday, but questions about the resilience of Sarri’s group of players and whether his style can work at Stamford Bridge persist in light of last weekend’s 6-0 defeat against Manchester City.

Sarri has frequently suggested his players lack motivation and mental strength after setbacks this season, and Zola said an experience as humiliating as the City loss would have prompted a different reaction from some of his former Chelsea teammates.

“Every group has its own characters in it,” he said. “There would have been some of the players in [my] group who wouldn’t have finished the game, for sure, against Manchester City. Every group has its own personalities, good and bad ones.

“I don’t think anyone in the group, in this group, has enjoyed that day. But everyone reacts differently. I don’t want to get into it very much, but we all felt that defeat is burning [inside us]. [Against Malmo] was a good reaction. We’re looking forward to continuing that.”

Sarri’s predecessor Antonio Conte frequently warned that Chelsea needed to find new dressing room leaders after the departures of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic during his two-year tenure, and the limp nature of their worst performances this season has led many to suggest they have still not been replaced.

Zola, however, is confident that Chelsea’s current squad has no shortage of strong individuals. “Yes, I believe so,” he added. “They are different personalities, but characters… in this group, like the one I had in my times, doesn’t like losing. Maybe they show it in another way, but it’s wrong to make comparisons like that.

“We believe that we didn’t like it. They reacted [against Malmo] and continue to react. It will be good if we can react more as a team rather than individuals. Even against City we reacted, yes, but individually. Players took responsibility and wanted to change the situation on their own. But what we are building here is a philosophy of playing.

“It’s not enough for one person to get the ball and try and beat two or three players. That’s not the way we want to play. But if you ask me if this group doesn’t care, I don’t believe that. They care. But they need to understand about how to work together, react together, pressing together. That’s the way we win games.”

Chelsea’s on-pitch struggles in 2019 have coincided with reports that many players have doubts about Sarri’s tactical approach and find his training sessions confusing and repetitive, but Zola is adamant that everyone at Cobham is still pulling in the same direction.

“When you lose 6-0 you don’t enjoy it, but we did when we won 5-0 [against Huddersfield Town],” Zola said. “There is a stage when you are working on something that, when it’s still not in place, you have to work hard.

“I think the players like what we are doing. I believe this. But I know that, there are moments when it is painful. But we will continue. We believe in what we are doing.”

Chelsea host Manchester United in the FA Cup fifth round on Monday (live on ESPN+ 11:30 a.m. ET).