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Eden Hazard's position at Chelsea remains a problem for Maurizio Sarri
Maurizio Sarri left his strikers out of the team against Newcastle
Last Updated: 14/01/19 2:30pm
Eden Hazard remains Chelsea's star man but does playing him as a striker really get the best from him? Adam Bate was at Stamford Bridge to witness Hazard’s latest display in the role in the 2-1 win over Newcastle and takes a look at the evidence here…
Ultimately, it was the decisive moment of the game. Hazard dropped the shoulder and twisted and turned away from the Newcastle defence, drawing four opponents towards him before spreading the play out wide to his left. Willian had the time and space to cut inside and curl the ball into the far corner of the net, winning the match for Chelsea. No problem.
And yet, that did not tell the full story from an evening in which Maurizio Sarri's side were once again far from their fluent best. With Olivier Giroud among the substitutes and Alvaro Morata not even considered worthy of a place on the bench, it was up to Hazard to play as the striker. He did his bit but it was still a struggle to get him involved in the game.
The assist to Willian was the only chance that Hazard created and he did not have a single shot on target either. That combined tally of one is his worst return in any Premier League game at Stamford Bridge this season, including his second-half substitute appearances in the wins over Arsenal and Crystal Palace. Seldom has he been so quiet.
Contrast that with his first start under Sarri, which came against Newcastle in August. Hazard was man of the match that day at St James' Park, having 135 touches of the ball and completing 91 passes. It was a masterclass but he was operating in his more familiar left-wing role. Such involvement is much more difficult when asked to play as the striker.
This time around, his first meaningful involvement came in the 14th minute when he drifted out wide to win his team a corner. Prior to that there had been only four touches of the ball. At that stage, every other Chelsea outfield player had enjoyed at least twice as many touches. The boy who loves the ball at his feet was being starved of it. And so it continued.
Prior to Saturday, only Manchester City had denied Hazard at least 70 touches in each of his Premier League starts at Stamford Bridge this season. There were 97 against Cardiff and 88 against Bournemouth, but both times he was on the left. Here, he touched the ball only 59 times and most of those came in the second half when he went searching for it.
Isaac Hayden and Sean Longstaff did a good screening job in the first half and when the ball did make it through, the first-time flicks didn't come off. There were even a few groans. He did get a warm ovation when withdrawn late on but the supporters were as aware as Hazard that there's more chance of the magic happening when he sees more of the ball.
"On the wing I feel more comfortable, that's my place," said Hazard himself in February when he was enduring life under Antonio Conte. But he was more open-minded when discussing it last month. "It is good not just to be a target man, but also as a false nine where I can move, I can drop, I can go deep, I can go on the wing," he explained.
Sarri knows that Hazard will never be a fixed reference point up front. He admitted as much in the press room after the game. "It is impossible for Eden to stay in the box," he said with a smile. "He goes to the direction of the ball. We need to learn to attack spaces. It was better today from the wingers. We scored after 10 minutes by attacking the space."
For Sarri, that is part of the explanation for his decision. Pedro's movement in behind for his goal was the sort of speculative run from out to in that he has made a career out of. The ball does not always reach him but on this occasion it did - and, with Hazard having drifted to the other flank, it vacated the space that allowed the Spaniard to run through to score.
Chelsea have options out wide. Sarri was careful to mention Callum Hudson-Odoi alongside Pedro and Willian when discussing the need to keep his wingers at the club. That is one of the things encouraging him to deploy Hazard elsewhere but it was also interesting that he referenced the improved defensive structure when the Belgian is used centrally.
"It's a case of being more balanced," he pointed out when discussing Hazard's current role in the team. "In the last six matches, we have conceded only three goals and one was a penalty. So I think at the moment in the defensive phase we are doing very well and one of the reasons, in my opinion, is that Eden is playing in that position."
Again, this is a familiar trope for Chelsea. Jose Mourinho became increasingly frustrated with the way that Hazard's unwillingness to track back defensively left the team exposed. Sarri has a reputation for being a much more attack-minded coach but even he appears conscious that his defence has more protection when Hazard is relieved of those duties.
"I think he needs to be let free on the pitch," he said recently, and in some ways it's worked. Hazard is now into double figures for goals and assists in the Premier League this season, only the second player after Lionel Messi in Europe's major leagues to achieve that feat. He has been directly involved in 20 goals, only three shy of his best ever season for Chelsea.
Maybe Sarri's much discussed transformation of Dries Mertens at Napoli can be repeated, after all. But don't count on it. "Dries is more of a striker than me," Hazard has said. "I am more like a playmaker. I like to come and touch the ball. Dries is not like this, he just wants to stay in the box. That's why he scores a lot of goals. We are different."
Hazard turned 28 this week so he is unlikely to change that attitude now - and why should he? It has got him this far and while Chelsea may have deficiencies in attack, it is a pity that their greatest entertainer is currently being asked to compromise his own game in order to help mask them. It is a solution of sorts for Sarri. But it is surely only a temporary one.
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