Chelsea are spoilt with Eden Hazard. The Belgian, who competes with Harry Kane, David de Gea and N’Golo Kante as the best Premier League player over the last three years, is good enough to make almost anything work.
In almost every match, he does something that lifts the spectacle onto a higher plane. It could be a goal or assist, but might just as easily be a turn and dribble to ghost past two defenders. Over the last two months, the equation has been simple: if Hazard performs, Chelsea perform.
Playing Hazard as a false nine does seem a little like using a small Ming vase to keep pencils and pens in. The Belgian has not been stymied fully by the role, yes it does tend to detract from his ability to pick the ball up in deeper areas and surge at the opposition. But given Alvaro Morata’s broken spirit/likely departure and Olivier Giroud’s continued status as a Plan B rather than attacking masterplan, there Hazard stays.
This is the biggest change of Maurizio Sarri’s short tenure at Stamford Bridge, more significant even than the central midfield alterations that now mean Kante is a box-to-box midfielder and Jorginho is the deep-lying playmaker.
We are used to Premier League managers building teams around the strengths of their best attacking players – Kane at Tottenham, Mohamed Salah at Liverpool, Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City. Moving your best player into an unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable position is brave.
Hazard has played as a false nine before, most successfully away at Brighton in a 4-0 win under Antonio Conte last season. But that has always been through necessity rather than design, and only ever as a temporary measure.
The response from many Chelsea supporters has been to assume – and in some cases demand – that their club signs a new centre-forward to replace Morata. Gonzalo Higuain has been repeatedly linked and is now odds-on to arrive from Milan. Gennaro Gattuso confirmed this weekend that Higuain has asked to leave, presumably after several words in his ear regarding Chelsea’s interest.
Trust in Sarri
But Higuain to Stamford Bridge – in fact, any expensive centre-forward going there – provokes as many questions as answers. It raises issues of player power vs managerial autonomy and short-term vs long-term quandaries that rest at the very heart of Chelsea.
Firstly, we can assume that Hazard would be delighted at the move. He much prefers playing wide left and much prefers playing with an archetypal centre-forward; a pivot around whom he can fizz and whizz. In October, Hazard called Giroud the best target man striker in the world – a clear message to Sarri that he was enjoying their relationship. At international level, the same applies with Romelu Lukaku.
But when Chelsea appointed Sarri, they committed to a long-term project. More than any other top-flight manager in Europe – with the possible exception of Pep Guardiola – Sarri is a philosophy manager. He arrives at a club and immediately begins to shape the squad and style to match his beliefs of what makes him successful.
In attack, that philosophy involves quick one-two passing in the final third which drags defenders out of position to create space that can be exploited by speedy movement.
The Napoli team of 2015/16 containing Higuain finished second to Juventus and gained 82 Serie A points, but Sarri evolved that team after selling the Argentine to Juventus. In 2017/18, when Napoli reached 91 league points, an attack of Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens produced arguably the most aesthetically wonderful football in Europe.
It isn’t that hard to squint and see Hazard becoming Chelsea’s Mertens, who provided 61 league goals and assists in his final two seasons under Sarri. Despite his reservations about a central role, it is instructive that this is the first season since joining Chelsea that Hazard has reached double figures for goals and assists. We’re only halfway through January.
The little guys
Interestingly, none of the eight midfielders or attackers to play 35 or more games in all competitions for Napoli in 2017/18 were over six feet tall. The only other high-level teams to match that record: Manchester City and Liverpool. There is a new wave of attacking splendour that relies on control over physical presence. A front six of Kante, Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, Willian, Pedro and Hazard? None over six feet tall.
With that in mind, signing Higuain would be an odd move. It would suggest that either Sarri has altered his tactical plan for Chelsea (and we have heard nothing to indicate that the Italian intends to do that) or that the club are pulling rank. Sarri has already admitted that it was not his call to sign Christian Pulisic. He also said at the start of the month that he would prefer another midfielder rather than a striker.
Hazard’s own situation muddies the water further. With Real Madrid clearly interested in bringing him to the Bernabeu in the summer, Chelsea may feel that keeping Hazard happy between now and June is in the club’s and Sarri’s best interests. There’s clearly some strength in that argument.
But then what’s the point of appointing one of the most dogmatic managers in the game, only to try to shape him? If Chelsea are truly committed to breaking their cycle of short-termism and chose Sarri as the manager to do it, they need to have faith in his vision for the club. Whoever it upsets.