Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea kept their stretch alive as the Blues stacked a fourth consecutive Premier League win by beating Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge. As usual, Sarri’s side dominated the game through strict possession. Their offensive effort, however, was a bit frustrated. Despite enjoying ball control throughout most of the game, they couldn’t find the net until Pedro opened the score. The Spaniard played a key part in Chelsea’s win and was especially good when Sarri called him off the bench. The former Barcelona footballer linked particularly well with Olivier Giroud up front, hurting Bournemouth’s defensive structure.
With the former Arsenal forward playing well while Álvaro Morata produced another disappointing performance, is time to take a closer look to the Giroud option at Sarri’s disposal. What does the Italian manager require from his centre-forward in order to adequately play the Sarri-ball system?
Álvaro Morata vs Olivier Giroud
When it comes to Morata, the Spaniard held the ball well up front. He was often caught out of position though when his teammates provided good crosses into the opposite penalty area. Meanwhile, Giroud impressed with his presence up front, defended well and also played a pivotal role in Chelsea’s victory.
In general, Giroud’s combination play with Pedro was good all of the time they stayed together on the field. This was demonstarted by the combination near Bournemouth’s penalty area that set up Pedro’s opening goal – his third goal so far – through a shot that beat Asmir Begovic.
Giroud’s performance against Bournemouth, compared with Morata’s unimpressive start of the season, raised some eyebrows. Pundits and fans are now discussing the opportunity to replace the former Real Madrid forward with Giroud.
What Sarri wants from his centre-forward
When it comes to the centre-forward, Sarri needs a player able to vertically stretch their rivals in order to create open gaps between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line, thus allowing wingers and interior midfielders to exploit these gaps operating through the half-spaces. But Sarri’s striker must not only stretch an opponent’s attacking depth. He must also be able to produce some link-up play in the final third.
With Napoli, Sarri utilised a lot of offensive patterns involving the centre-forward to create scoring chances. One well-known pattern was based on heavily overloading the left flank and the left half-space thought the movements of the left chain featuring Faouzi Ghoulam (left-back), Marek Hamsik (left interior midfielder) and Lorenzo Insigne (left winger).
This overload had the goal to dismantle the opposite defensive structure in order to empty the weak side. Then, Sarri’s side was able to move the ball from the strong side to the weak side. Right winger José Callejón was then able to win the one-to-one situations created on the right side in order to score. Napoli scored many goals through this offensive pattern.
Pattern over personnel
Patterns didn’t change when Napoli lost Higuain to Juventus. The original plan was to simply sub the Argentinian with Arkadiusz Milik. When the Polish striker was on the sidelines with a knee injury, Sarri moved Dries Mertens up top as the centre-forward. Although the Belgian is not a pure striker, he played well in that position, scoring 18 goals.
Credit for this impressive number goes to the player but also to Sarri’s decision to convert him from winger to centre-forward. Even if he’s not as strong as Higuain in the air, Mertens’ movements were similar to the ones provided by the Argentinian. First and foremost, Mertens too had to link play with the interior midfielders and wingers.
A 4-3-3 system like Sarri’s means you don’t have a natural no.10 positioned between the opposition’s lines. This spot is free and has to be occupied by the wingers, interior midfielders or the centre-forward.
When Insigne received the ball in the left half-spaces, he could shoot, cross or link the play with Mertens. This link-up play came through a lob or a quick, simple pass played towards Mertens inside the box.
With Mertens coming towards Insigne, Napoli were able to create a quadrilateral featuring the Belgian, the Italian international, Ghoulam and Hamsik. It often provided numerical and positional superiority. Furthermore, when the opposite team was able to close the channel on their defensive right side, Napoli played the aforementioned ball for Callejon who ran behind the backline.
Morata and Giroud: a comparison
Although is too soon to draw sound conclusions about Morata with this season just started, he appeared not so involved in Sarri’s offensive patterns. Chelsea’s attack looked better when Giroud was on the pitch. Attacking the back line in order to stretch rivals suits Morata, and it fills Sarri’s requests. Where the 25-year-old forward got in trouble was when linking play with the Blues’ central midfielders and wingers.
If you take a look to the @11tegen’s passing network for the game between Chelsea and Bournemouth, you can easily see how little Morata was involved in the Blues’ offensive play despite their 73% possession.
Morata fit perfectly into Antonio Conte’s vertical system. In fact, Chelsea’s former approach was based on a strong, deep defence while the attack mostly relied on counter-attacking play. With Sarri, Chelsea enjoy a different way of playing. Morata’s contribution cannot be limited to attacking the backline as he must play Sarri’s offensive patterns. This features a lot of link-up play with the rest of the team.
Furthermore, when it comes to the defensive phase of the game, Giroud still looks fitter than Morata. When out of possession, Chelsea usually left their 4-3-3 shape to install a kind of 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 defensive in which the centre-forward must build the first line of pressure. Giroud seemed more comfortable than Morata in terms of covering midfielders’ back passing lines or directly pressing opposition centre-backs up front. The pressing scheme is a key part of Sarri’s defensive approach.
So, that said, at the moment the 31-year-old world champion seems a better option up front than Morata. Giroud’s introduction against Eddie Howe’s side paid off. The Frenchman’s showing in his 70 minutes suggests that Giroud earned a closer look. It means he should earn a spot in Chelsea’s starting XI next time.
It doesn’t mean that Morata will be a backup throughout the season. There are a lot of games to be played. But, so far, the Frenchman looks to be a better option up front.