The Belgium captain has been forced into a position he does not like in recent weeks due to Maurizio Sarri’s mistrust of his current strikers
For the second January in a row, Chelsea find themselves at the centre of a striker merry-go-round. They want Gonzalo Higuain. He’s at AC Milan, on loan from Juventus, where he was pushed out to make room for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Higuain is having a bad season at San Siro and has scored only once in Serie A since October, with that goal coming against SPAL on December 29.
But there remains the tantalising potential of a link-up with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, the coach with whom Higuain arguably made his reputation during a record-breaking season with Napoli in 2015-16.
The Blues have reached an agreement with the player, Juventus and AC Milan – no mean feat – but there are further complications.
Indeed, Chelsea have got to clear space in their squad as well as their wage bill. To that effect, they are in the process of punting Alvaro Morata to Atletico Madrid for the rest of the season on loan.
Atleti don’t want to pay for a permanent deal right now and a fee could be settled instead for summer. Neither will Atleti be paying all of the Spain international’s wages if they can help it.
Michy Batshuayi, meanwhile, has been sent back from a difficult loan spell at Valencia. Sarri has not brought the Belgian back to play up front but in the hope of drumming up some cash in the form of a permanent sale.
It’s hoped he will go and join Michael Emenalo and Cesc Fabregas at Monaco but the fee that Chelsea are looking for is proving to be prohibitive.
In short, it’s a mess.
Morata has had numerous opportunities to prove himself at Stamford Bridge and blown most of them. He is not up to leading the line for a Sarri team and is suffering a crisis of confidence in front of goal.
He did not have the full trust of Antonio Conte either, who dipped into the market last year to sign Olivier Giroud.
While Giroud has been relatively popular with the Chelsea fans, and brought good football from Eden Hazard when they’ve played together, he has not wholly convinced Sarri of his merits.
Last year, Diego Costa was shipped out to Atletico, while Batshuayi was booted to Borussia Dortmund. It’s been a revolving door in the Chelsea striker department and despite the money spent and the deals done, none has been up to scratch.
That’s why Sarri has taken the unusual step of playing Hazard up front this season. The Belgium captain famously did not like playing there under Conte and would hardly have been thrilled to go there under the new coach either.
It has worked for the team, however, and Sarri, in public at least, believes that Chelsea have a better defensive shape when Hazard plays from the front.
Sarri has form of playing a little man up top, having successfully converted Hazard’s Belgium team-mate Dries Mertens into a ‘false nine’ at Napoli following the departure of Higuain for Juventus.
Arkadiusz Milik was brought in as an expensive replacement. A cruciate knee ligament injury put paid to the Pole’s season early on, however, and so Sarri had to go look for solutions within the squad.
Mertens worked. He is one of the most intelligent strikers in world football according to those who know him well.
However, while Mertens and Hazard might be similar heights and share the same nationality, they are very different players.
Mertens is content to wait for his moment to pounce and many of his goals owe a lot to his movement, his anticipation and feature only one or two touches.
Hazard is a natural playmaker. He wants the ball all of the time. Whether he’s dribbling, playing one-twos or looking for a through-ball, Hazard demands involvement. And his teams generally benefit from his ability to run a game.
While he might well do a job for the team up front, it takes a lot away from the side as a whole to isolate him up there. It removes his one-on-one ability and, with that, goes Chelsea’s chances of tilting the numbers game in their favour.
It removes what is described in Spanish as “la pausa”. That is the intelligence to slow the game down until the moment is exactly right to play the pass.
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Few players master this trick and if they do, they are world class. Hazard has it but it’s rendered useless if he is not running the game from behind the front man.
But Chelsea’s mess in the market has led them to this point. It is frustrating for Sarri that his best playmaker is also his best striker. And currently he feels he can compensate better for his absence in midfield than up front.
Higuain’s transfer cannot come soon enough. He is a better bet than either Morata or Giroud. He is not as unselfish as Giroud but is more clinical than Morata.
He has thrived before in the presence of creative, quick attackers such as Jose Callejon and Paulo Dybala. Chelsea have those kind of players.
What his signing will do is deliver the twin benefit of an upgrade in the No.9 position and relief for Hazard because he won’t have to play centrally any longer and can revert to his best position.
For a Chelsea side short of goals, relatively speaking at least, it should be enough for them to establish themselves as at least the third best team in the Premier League.