As of now, Chelsea have two orthodox strikers in Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud. Despite this, coach Maurizio Sarri has looked elsewhere recently. He has utilised Eden Hazard in the ‘false nine’ role, opting to go without a significant presence in the box. Given his calibre, Hazard has played the role at a high level, but what has been the impact on the whole team? Let’s analyse Chelsea’s changed system, with the aid of statistics.
Hazard has started the game up front in five Premier League games this season. They were home games against Manchester City, Leicester City, and Newcastle United coupled with trips to Brighton and Watford.
How has Chelsea’s attack varied?
In those games, Chelsea have averaged 1.8 goals per game, compared to 1.82 for the season. The chances created have dropped from 12.6 to 9.4, and so have the expected goals, from 1.76 to 1.61. Chelsea have taken considerably fewer shots, just 11.2 per game compared to the season average of 15.8. On the face of it, it looks as if the attack is more stagnant when Hazard is the striker.
Hazard drops too deep from the striker spot
One obvious difference is the average position of the striker. Hazard loves to drop deep into midfield to instigate play. When on the wing, this trait of his is not that harmful. Marcos Alonso keeps the width on the flank and the shape is maintained somewhat. But the same is not true when he is the main striker.
He leaves the penalty box often, which means that Chelsea have no one there to attack crosses. A perfect ‘false nine’ system needs inside forwards who make runs when the striker drops, but the Chelsea wide players are not up to the task. Pedro has past experience in the role, but Willian likes to hug the touchline, and getting into the box is not his thing.
Consider the touches per game of the Chelsea striker. In games when Giroud or Morata start, the number is 38, whereas Hazard averages 68.4 in that position. The passes completed rise from 24.8 to 44.8. This is a huge difference and tells just how involved Hazard is in the buildup play by abandoning the striker spot. Why not instigate play from the winger spot, and have a striker in the box to play off of?
Hazard vs Giroud/Morata
Now let’s take a look at the output of the Chelsea striker. Hazard the striker created two chances per game, compared to 1.2 which Giroud and Morata muster. In the shots tally, it’s the other way round. Hazard manages 2 shots and 1.6 shots in the box, compared to 3.4 and 2.7 respectively by Giroud/Morata. The picture is pretty clear. Chelsea take more attempts when an orthodox striker plays, but Hazard bumps up the creativity.
Hazard’s individual output
Another factor in the argument is Hazard’s individual output. He is Sarri’s best asset by far, and maximising his output is crucial. Hazard the winger has 72.4 touches, creates 2.8 chances, and takes 2.7 shots. The corresponding numbers drop down to 65 touches, two chances, and two shots when he is the striker. The Belgian is clearly more productive on the flank.
Which system should Sarri favour?
With all due respect to Giroud and Morata, Chelsea do not have a top-class striker. This certainly must have encouraged Sarri to hand Hazard the role. But it has not been a conducive decision, albeit by a close margin. If rumours are to believed, Gonzalo Higuain is set to join Chelsea. At least on pedigree, he should give Sarri a better striking option, which should shuttle Hazard back to the wing.
As Chelsea look to secure top-four status, abandoning the ‘false nine’ system seems to be the best route. It has not been a disaster by any metric. But Higuain will get the spot to begin with, and Sarri should persist with an orthodox striker there. It is better for Chelsea as a team, and for Hazard individually as well. Remember, Gonzalo scored 36 goals in 35 Serie A games for Maurizio the last time they were together.