One story making the rounds this weekend involves Eden Hazard supposedly “pushing particularly hard” for Maurizio Sarri as the new Chelsea head coach, “encouraged by the praise” lavished on the former Napoli head coach by Napoli leading scorer and Hazard’s international teammate Dries Mertens.
La Gazzetta dello Sport claims Eden Hazard - encouraged by #Napoli striker Dries Mertens - is pushing for Maurizio Sarri to take over at #CFC https://t.co/9hLOyrfZGT #ChelseaFC pic.twitter.com/EobseGS7Dz— footballitalia (@footballitalia) May 26, 2018
The specifics of the praise and how or when Hazard decided to be encouraged by it are unclear, and perhaps not important. Mertens certainly did not hold back in his praise earlier this season, when Napoli’s unlikely Scudetto charge still seemed a possibility.
“In my view, we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for Sarri. He is responsible for a lot of it, he made his decisions and changed Napoli. Since he has been at this club, he has made even normal players become top class.”
-Dries Mertens; December 2017
It should also be noted that Hazard has been on vacation since the end of the season and is not expected to join up with the Belgium national team until sometime this week, so any opportunities for to get involved personally in this process have probably been fairly limited. (Then again, we’re looking for a new Director of Football, right?)
On a more serious note: I think Eden Hazard is enjoying his holidays with the kids right now, rather than getting involved in the pushing process... https://t.co/2GAMbgoML1— Kristof Terreur (@HLNinEngeland) May 26, 2018
In any case, what is clear is that Mertens enjoyed significant and rather unexpected success under Sarri. At the start of the 2016-17 season, no one would’ve guessed that the perfect replacement for Juventus-bound beefy striker Gonzalo Higuaín was a player who measured-in at 1.69 meters (5 feet 6 inches) and 61 kilos (134 pounds). And yet, in the two seasons since then, Mertens scored 34 and 22 goals, and dished out 15 and 12 assists. He went from the bench to a nailed-on starter, tripling his minutes played.
The credit for that goes to Sarri, even if a bit of providence was at work, too.
Sarri: "We all thought that Mertens was a winger, & a substitute. I played him as a striker out of desperation, now he's a true star". pic.twitter.com/YU0iUbbMVZ— Everything Napoli (@NaplesAndNapoli) October 25, 2017
But what about Hazard?
On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that he would welcome a coach who is devoted to quick-strike, attacking football. He has the pace and the technique to execute coach’s orders. He loves to pass and move, a fundamental of the system Sarri implemented at Napoli. Like Mertens, he’s as keen to pass as to shoot. Naturally, he sees what playing for Sarri has done for Mertens’ numbers and who can blame him if he envisions the same rich harvest for himself?
But hold on. Yes, there’s an “on the other hand” argument here. It holds that Sarri will demand things of Eden that he’s never shown an appetite for before. Namely, playing hard when his team doesn’t have the ball. Sarri doesn’t always press. But when he does, he demands that his forwards are heavily involved, that they expend a great deal of energy both attacking and defending.
One reason why Antonio Conte switched to three at the back after starting his Chelsea life with a back-four was because he discovered he couldn’t rely on Eden Hazard to protect his left fullback. By using wingbacks, Hazard was able to roam free, relatively carefree when Chelsea were defending. That’s why Eden’s supposedly expressed desire about not wanting to play “in a straightjacket” felt oddly misplaced. Other than the few times Conte asked him to play center-forward, Hazard basically had the run of the park.
If Sarri brings his Napoli system to Stamford Bridge, Eden may indeed enjoy the attacking opportunities it will present. But how will he feel about the defensive responsibilities he will be asked to assume? We can’t know the answer to that. We’ll have to wait until it happens.
But at a minimum, it’s fair to ask a decidedly unexpected question; how well will Chelsea’s best attacking player adapt to a coach who’s famous for his attractive, attacking style?