In recent matches Maurizio Sarri has been deploying a different front three, of Willian, Eden Hazard and Pedro. Without Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata in the team Hazard has been tasked with the job of performing as a striker. Using Hazard as the central striker and deploying Pedro more often on the right-hand side of the attacking three has slightly altered the dynamics of Chelsea’s attacking play. In the Premier League match against Watford, they all performed slightly different roles based on their teammates around them.
Willian on the left-hand side of the attacking three is more likely to make movements between the fullback and centre back than moving into wider areas. These runs, which threaten the space in behind the defence, creates more space for Mateo Kovacic to operate in as the fullback and centre back are both being occupied by Willian.
As Willian is playing on the opposite side to his favoured foot he is more inclined to cut inside onto his stronger foot. This is counterbalanced by the fact that Marcos Alonso is very attack-minded and looks to create overlaps on the left-hand side. Due to Alonso’s positioning Willian has the freedom in which to move inside as width is still being provided.
Alonso’s strengths lie in his ability to get into advanced positions and delivering good quality balls into the box. As a result of this, he often finds himself higher and wider than Cesar Azpilicueta on the right-hand side. To prevent Willian and himself from being in the same vertical channel Willian will often move inside towards the halfspace.
Pedro on the right-hand side positioned himself wider which stretched the defensive line of Watford. Azpilicueta is more defensive in nature and therefore not as efficient when in advanced areas of the pitch. Due to his narrower positioning, Pedro has to be wider in order to occupy more defenders. If he was to play more on the inside this would make it easier for the opposition to maintain a compact shape.
When Azpilicueta does move out into the wide channel then Pedro will often make a counter movement in towards the halfspace. This movement creates a diagonal passing option which has many advantages. When Pedro moves inside this creates a dilemma for the fullback. If he follows Pedro inside then it will leave a space to the side of the centre back for Hazard to exploit. If he decides to hold his position then Pedro will become the free player in the dangerous halfspace.
The somewhat lazy nature of the press and pundits has seen Hazard labelled as playing in a false 9 role. The role of a false 9 is to drop into deep central areas in order to create an overload, whilst creating space for inside forwards to exploit with runs between the opponent’s defence.
Hazard quite simply doesn’t fill this role; he doesn’t drop deep in order to create overloads and nor do both of the wide men operate as inside forwards making runs in behind the defence. Hazard at times will drop off and roam from his position but this tends to only be when Chelsea are in the attacking third. At this point, he is attempting to create space for himself or his teammates in order to create a goal scoring opportunity.
When the ball is deeper on the pitch Hazard stays high and central to provide a passing option into depth. This is the preferred passing option as it eliminates multiple lines of opponent pressure. Due to the deeper positions both of Chelsea’s wide players take up when pressure is applied by the opponents during the build-up phase it’s vital that they have a deep option to pass to relieve pressure.
Wide men in the build-up phase
When Chelsea have secure possession in their own defensive third both wide men are high and wide in order to stretch the defensive line. Watford were reluctant to leave them both free on the touchline which resulted in big spaces being created between the centre-backs and fullbacks.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, they were unable to exploit these spaces with forward runs. This in part was down to the personnel choices that Sarri made in midfield. Neither N’Golo Kante nor Kovacic make many forward runs off the ball into spaces behind the opponent’s midfield. The midfielder best suited to exploiting these spaces is Ruben Loftus-Cheek but he wasn’t selected.
Pedro was taken off injured in the 43rd minute thus limiting the ability to analyse these interactions over the whole match. What was obvious, however, was the different relationships between Alonso and Willian on the left and Azpilicueta and Pedro on the right. The current front three certainly seems more fluid that is has earlier in the season. Sarri will be hoping that the injury to Pedro doesn’t keep him out for any period of time. Interestingly when he was substituted it was Callum Hudson-Odoi who came on in his place instead of Giroud; this shows that Sarri has faith in his current system with Hazard as the focal point.
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