Friday 20 September 2019

Sarri tactics give Hazard the chance to hit 40 goals - but Chelsea may lose him as a result

 

Chelsea's Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring one of his three goals against Cardiff last weekend,. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA
Chelsea's Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring one of his three goals against Cardiff last weekend,. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA

Talking tactics: Aidan O'Hara

One moment that sums up what it must be like to play against Eden Hazard should be very familiar to followers of Irish football.

With his team 2-0 down and desperate to win the ball back during their Euro 2016 meeting in Bordeaux, Ciaran Clark raced towards the sideline as Hazard slowed down just enough to let him think he had a chance.

At the point when Clark was fully committed, Hazard pressed the accelerator enough to flick the ball down the line and skip away from the Irish defender whose plan had been to put the ball out for a throw-in.

Instead, Clark found himself careering towards the advertising hoardings and he had just about got back onto the pitch by the time Hazard skipped down the wing before squaring for Romelu Lukaku to score - 3-0, game over.

In a nutshell, this is the quandary facing every one of Hazard's direct opponents.

Stand off and he has the awareness, speed and technique to pop the ball around them and get the next one; or commit 100pc to taking the ball from him, be sucked in, and left on their arse.

Chelsea's player N'Golo Kante’s role, too, has changed thanks to the arrival of Jorginho. Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
Chelsea's player N'Golo Kante’s role, too, has changed thanks to the arrival of Jorginho. Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, when you see Hazard in the flesh it's striking just how much of the time he spends walking but, again, like the other greats of the game, it's remarkable how often the ball breaks to the exact spot to which he has strolled.

At his best, Hazard is never still and when he roams he can occupy four or five opponents, asking them questions to which there may not necessarily be any right answer.

If he's playing on the left, Hazard will drift just far enough inside to drag the right-back too close to his centre-back which, at Chelsea, creates space for Marcos Alonso to charge uninhibited down the wing.

If the right-back decides to pass Hazard on to one of his centre-backs, he'll stand still and make the defender come to him, thereby creating a gap between the two centre-backs, which can be exploited by a good centre-forward.

The same is true on the opposite side of the pitch or, if he plays centrally, Hazard will occupy the space between the centre-backs and the deepest-lying midfielder of the opposing team.

Option 1 is for either a centre-back or central midfielder to stick with him, in which case the midfield or defence is being dragged out of shape by his movement.

Option 2 is to leave him there, which, given his current form, isn't really an option.

Netted

Last week, Maurizio Sarri suggested Hazard could move into the Messi/Ronaldo realm of goalscoring after he netted a hat-trick against Cardiff, which brought his league tally to five goals, as well as two assists.

"I talked with Eden (on Friday) and I told him that, for me, he can score 40 goals. He has to improve something, but he can do it," said Sarri. "If you saw the game today, you have to say (he believed me)."

Against Cardiff, each facet of Hazard's play was on display in his opening goal when he dropped short into space to pick up a pass from N'Golo Kante.

Hazard is being closely marked by Sol Bamba who has come out of his central-defensive position and is poised to pounce if, as expected, Hazard moves to control the ball.

Instead, Hazard is aware enough that Olivier Giroud is behind him, steps over the ball and spins, leaving Bamba's momentum going forward and, suddenly, from Hazard being two yards in front of him, Bamba now finds himself two yards behind and a huge gap is opened in the Cardiff defence.

Cardiff react reasonably well with Joe Bennett coming inside from left-back to close the gap but Hazard judges the speed on Giroud's lay-off better than Bennett who commits and misses, meaning Hazard has a run on goal to fire home an equaliser.

And if Hazard is to reach the 40-goal mark set for him by Sarri, the other two team-mates involved in that move will be crucial for Hazard, and Chelsea's chances of winning the league.

In Giroud, Chelsea have one of the best 'wall-passers' in the league. He might not score too often but, both with France in the summer and during his time at Arsenal, he is loved by his team-mates because, just like against Cardiff, they know that if they give him the ball and make a run, they're going to get it back in a better position.

Alvaro Morata might be physically and technically better than Giroud in many areas but if the best of Morata means not getting the best out of Hazard, then there can only be one winner for Sarri.

Kante's role, too, has changed thanks to the arrival of Jorginho to anchor the base of the Chelsea midfield which has released the French midfielder to create rather than simply destroy.

His ability to win the ball back hasn't diminished but, crucially, when he does it in a more advanced role it means there is a shorter distance to the opponent's goal and allows him to feed the likes of Hazard higher up the pitch. It seems a fairly straightforward managerial strategy to build a team around getting the best out of your primary goalscorer and, at Napoli, that's exactly what Sarri's 4-3-3 formation allowed.

In his single season under him, Gonzalo Higuain hit 36 goals at Napoli, the joint-highest tally in history and one of only two people - Luca Toni being the other - to break the 30-goal mark in Serie A since the 1960s.

When Higuain was sold, Sarri switched his attentions to use Hazard's compatriot Dries Mertens as the focal point and, like Hazard, the team was built around his roving role which brought 28 and 18 league goals in two seasons for a player who had totalled 22 in his previous three in Naples.

"I thought Hazard was one of the best players in Europe but now I'm changing my mind because maybe he is the best," was Sarri's assessment of Hazard after last weekend, but the lingering problem for Chelsea is that nobody will ever be recognised as the best player in Europe while playing on Thursday nights in the Europa League.

Creating

And with one year left on his contract at the end of the season, Sarri may well be creating, if not the best player in the world, then certainly the most sought-after, if the deal on the table for him at Stamford Bridge remains unsigned.

If he does manage to hit the 40-goal mark - and there's every chance he'll get closer to that tally tomorrow against West Ham - it may still not be enough to close the 30-point gap which existed between them and Manchester City last season.

At that point, Hazard could justifiably wonder what more could he do at Stamford Bridge?

Hazard will be 28 next January and won't owe Chelsea anything by the time he completes his seventh season with them next May, and, if he reaches Sarri's tally of 40 goals, he could practically pick the number on his weekly wage from next season.

Under Sarri, Hazard may well have the structure to score the goals that move him into the conversation among Messi, Ronaldo and the world's best.

The trouble for Chelsea is that by this time next season, they may not be the ones to get the benefit from it.

Irish Independent

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