Eden Hazard doesn’t particularly enjoy playing center forward. He doesn’t necessarily dislike it, but he isn’t too enthused by it. He doesn’t not like it? He doesn’t mind?
It was also a point of contention between him and the previous Chelsea head coach, Antonio Conte, certainly as far as the narrative was concerned. Hazard was always diplomatic in public about Conte shoe-horning him into a role that doesn’t play to his strengths, despite once volunteering for it.
Naturally, after Chelsea’s massive 2-0 win on Saturday, Hazard was asked to give his verdict on Maurizio Sarri putting him up front and center against Manchester City, too.
“I like because I play last year under Conte, so I know what to do. But the feeling is a bit strange because you don’t touch the ball a lot. [Shrugs shoulders.] But you just need to focus on what you need to do and I try to do my best today. We won and that’s what is important [winks].”
-Eden Hazard; source: Match of the Day
The expectation that Sarri would try this has been present since the start of the season, growing with every poor performance from Álvaro Morata (who was surplus to requirements even for a bench role in this one) and Olivier Giroud (who came on for added-on time to act as a big body).
Sarri briefly tried it in the second half of the 3-1 loss to Spurs — a move that was somewhat analogous to Conte switching to the back three for the first time in the middle of a disastrous match — but yesterday was the first time Sarri started with the all-smalls lineup at Chelsea. And it worked!
“He had some problems at the beginning of the match but he was great in the second half. Maybe he deserved to score and I think he’s a very good option [in that position]. We will play like today in the future, for certain matches of course.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: Chelsea FC
Playing as the nominal center forward (the Dries Mertens role?), Hazard finished with 39 touches (17 first half; 22 second) but still collected the assist on both Chelsea goals — he now has 8 on the season to lead the Premier League. Hazard may not be scoring, but he’s staying involved and making crucial contributions. He teased Guardiola before the match that the only thing missing from Manchester City is an Eden Hazard, and he proved himself correct by making a difference.
How much Hazard will have to deal with this role depends on multiple factors, but Sarri seemed pleased enough and certainly, once the team stopped aiming for his head and instead gave passes to feet, it was a workable situation for Eden, too. It’s not his best position, that much is clear, but it adds a different dimension to Sarri-ball when needed and is a nice option to have until we can find a proper solution for the center forward position.
NB.: You can watch/listen Eden talk briefly about his role against Manchester City at around the 1min mark of this video.