The appointment of Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea never seemed in doubt, but the length of time it took to formalise his arrival left the Italian manager with little time to stamp his identity on the squad in the transfer window.
It surely can’t have been Sarri’s intention to start the Premier League season, and his first season managing outside of Italy, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud as his two striking options. This has led to pundits suggesting that Eden Hazard will ultimately occupy the role as the main attacker in Sarri’s Chelsea.
Hazard is a tremendously intelligent player in addition to his obvious technical gifts, so there are no reasons why he couldn’t adapt to the expectations of leading the line. When asked to perform this role under former manager Antonio Conte, it appeared to be a misuse of Hazard’s set of skills.
Sarri has more experience in converting tricky and diminutive attackers into the side’s focal point, having transformed Dries Mertens from a solid wide player into a potent striker.
The concern over moving Hazard further forward is that it negates perhaps his most significant strength; the Belgian’s incisive and skilful dribbling enables him to pick up the ball in deep positions and drive at the opposition defence, allowing his side to gain attacking ground while defenders retreat in fear.
If Hazard is the main striker, there is an inevitable concern that he will have less space to dribble and a greater expectation to hold up play with his back to goal.
Yet if Sarri can find a way to integrate the abilities of Hazard, Pedro and Willian into a fluid front three, then Chelsea will have an attack with a mobility and intelligence that will be difficult for defenders to handle.
The odds on Chelsea to win league 2019 reflect that this year is likely to be a transitional season for the side, as the Blues can be backed as fourth-favourites to lift the title at a price of 19.5 on the Betfair Exchange. Chelsea still have many of the key components to their title-winning side from 2016/17, so if Sarri can bring the best out of Hazard consistently then there is no reason that they can’t challenge at the top of the league this season.
Sarri’s system is expected to give greater creative freedom to Cesc Fabregas, still capable of unlocking defences with his vision. This benefits players such as Hazard, who are constantly making purposeful runs during the game.
This is where Alvaro Morata struggles, with the Spaniard’s movement and pressing likely to be at odds with Sarri’s strategy. Morata also looks bereft of confidence; his first few months at Stamford Bridge were largely successful, but since then he has been a shadow of his best.
Giroud is similarly not mobile enough to regularly play a part in a Sarri attack, although he is a consummate professional who is a dangerous option coming off the bench. It seems unavoidable that Chelsea’s fortunes this season will depend largely on Hazard, as well as how quickly the new goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga proves his worth.
At his best, Hazard is undeniably a world-class operator, the kind of player that Real Madrid and Barcelona will always covet. If Hazard fires this season, there is no reason why Chelsea can’t challenge for the title.
The downside to that is if Hazard is on form and Chelsea don’t challenge, this season may be his last at Stamford Bridge.
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