As Saturday’s game against Manchester United ticked into second-half injury time, Chelsea seemed to be on the verge of their first defeat of the season. Two goals from Anthony Martial after the break had turned the match on its head after Antonio Rudiger’s deadlock-breaking header in the 21st minute, and the Blues appeared to have run out of ideas as they pushed for a late leveller.
The fact that six minutes of stoppage time were added on must have provided the hosts with a boost, and it was in the final few seconds that substitute Ross Barkley turned the ball home to rescue a point and maintain Chelsea’s unbeaten start to life under Maurizio Sarri. David de Gea made a brilliant save to deny Rudiger after David Luiz’s header had come back off the post, but the Spaniard could do nothing to deny Barkley from five yards out.
Although Chelsea scored twice against a fellow member of the big six, this was another game in which one of their strikers failed to find the back of the net. Alvaro Morata was given the nod from the start ahead of Olivier Giroud, who entered the fray in place of the former Juventus and Real Madrid marksman in the 79th minute. Nine games in and the two centre-forwards have scored two Premier League goals between them, both of them Morata’s.
In the modern game, the central striker is not always a team’s chief goal-getter. Mohamed Salah fulfilled that role at Liverpool last season despite starting on the right-hand side of a front three, and the primary function of Chelsea’s centre-forward – be it Morata or Giroud – is to bring out the best in Eden Hazard.
That is a reasonable approach but the question remains: can Chelsea really win the title without a striker who chips in with his fair share of goals? After all, Firmino may not have been Liverpool’s top scorer last campaign, but he did find the net on 15 occasions in the top flight – and Jurgen Klopp’s men still finished 25 points adrift of Manchester City in top spot.
Hazard has been the outstanding player of the Premier League season so far, scoring a division-high seven goals, providing three assists and turning in several brilliant performances. Sarri has set him a target of 40 goals in all competitions this term, and it is becoming clear that Hazard may have to get close to Salah’s Premier League tally of 32 in 2017/18 if Chelsea are to mount a sustained title tilt.
Barkley’s strike on Saturday was his second in as many games, but Sarri’s first-choice midfield is not exactly full of goals. Jorginho sits deep in the engine room and excels at setting the tempo, but he has netted just one non-penalty goal in league games since 2013/14. Mateo Kovacic, while clearly a highly footballer, has scored once in the league since swapping Inter for Real Madrid in August 2015, and N’Golo Kante has never contributed more than one league goal in a campaign since moving to England that same summer.
Wide forwards Willian and Pedro Rodriguez will be expected to help Hazard out and shoulder some of the scoring burden, but Giroud and Morata’s starts to the season suggest that Chelsea will not be able to rely on their centre-forwards for too many goals this term.
“Today I was happy with the performance for 60 minutes because for 60 minutes we played our football,” Sarri told reporters in his post-match press conference. “Then after it was 1-1 we didn’t play our football, only long balls and we didn’t win the second balls. In this type of football United are better.
“I’ve seen the match from the bench and now I want to study the second part of the match. They have to play my football with character. I don’t want the long ball, and going for second balls; I want to play with short passes. I don’t know [why it happened]. If I knew I would have been able to immediately change the situation. Now I have to study the match. For you a match is 90 minutes, for me it’s around four hours.”
The Italian was clearly disappointed with his side’s performance in the final stages of Saturday’s encounter, and he must also be concerned with the lack of goals from his strikers so far this season.