Bad news for Morata and Giroud as Sarri hands Hazard central role

Given that Maurizio Sarri only made one outfield signing in the summer transfer market, he has done an excellent job at Chelsea so far this season. Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion moved the Blues three points clear of Arsenal in fifth place, with Tottenham Hotspur still just two points ahead in third.

Jorginho was the only non-goalkeeper to arrive prior to the opening day, the deep-lying midfielder following his former Napoli boss to Stamford Bridge. Aside from the Brazil-born Italy international and Kepa Arrizabalaga, Sarri has had to work with the players he inherited from Antonio Conte, a manager with a very different view of the game. In that light the 54-year-old has done tremendously well to get his ideas across so quickly, but there are a handful of issues that remain – including the centre-forward conundrum.

Alvaro Morata began the season as Sarri’s go-to No.9, but he soon fell out of favour and was displaced in the team by Olivier Giroud. Neither man is an elite striker but the Frenchman certainly has the edge when it comes to link-up play and work outside the box, with these characteristics considered important as a means to get the best out of Eden Hazard. However, Giroud’s lack of goals saw Morata return for the 2-2 draw with Manchester United in October; the Spaniard did not score in that game but he did find the net against Burnley and Crystal Palace, before being dropped again ahead of December’s meeting with Manchester City.

It was not Giroud who replaced Morata up front on that occasion, but rather Eden Hazard. Flanked by Willian and Pedro Rodriguez, the Belgian cut a frustrated figure for much of the first half, but it was he who set up N’Golo Kante’s strike just before the interval. He continued as a withdrawn striker against Brighton, providing the assist for Pedro’s opener before getting on the scoresheet himself to double Chelsea’s lead.

Hazard regularly dropped deep throughout the game, dragging Lewis Dunk and Leon Balogun into areas they did not want to be in. Hazard used the ball well and was still able to be a creative force, while Sarri will have been pleased to see him get into an excellent goalscoring position early in the second half – even if he did fail to connect with Cesar Azpilicueta’s teasing cross.

This does, however, feel like a sticking plaster rather than a long-term solution to the issue, particularly as Gianfranco Zola, Sarri’s No.2, suggested that Chelsea will make a move for Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson next month.

“I’m sure there are a lot of players linked with us. Callum is doing well and is of interest not only for us but for many,” Zola said ahead of Wednesday’s League Cup quarter-final against the Cherries.

“He’s strong, fast, and he sees the goal. I like him because he’s also strong in the air, which is a very important quality, but I don’t want to go into it too much. He’s doing very well and I’m pleased for him.”

It is rare for a manager – or, in this case, assistant – to confirm interest in another club’s player, so it is likely that Chelsea will indeed make a move for Wilson in the January window. That is not particularly positive news for either Giroud or Morata, one of whom is likely to be handed a chance to impress against Eddie Howe’s men at Stamford Bridge. In the Premier League, though, Hazard now looks to be Sarri’s first choice through the middle.

“I think we could have won better because we played very well for 60 minutes, I think. We conceded a goal in a moment in which we were in full control of the match, and so, in my mind, it was clear in that moment that we have to suffer in the last five minutes with the long balls into the box,” the Chelsea boss told reporters after the defeat of Brighton, before going on to discuss Hazard’s performance as a false nine.

“I think that, for us, he could be very important in this position,” the Italian continued. “He is very able to come out and play with his team-mates, very able to create spaces. Now I think that, in that position, he has to improve in attacking the box.”

Sarri still spots room for improvement for Hazard in his new role, but he is likely to stick with the fluid front three when his Chelsea team do battle with Leicester City at Stamford Bridge this weekend.

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