Chelsea played 90 minutes of meaningless football on Saturday. They may have passed with relative frequency, dominated possession, and played out from the back, but none of it mattered. With just a single shot on target against Arsenal, Chelsea never posed a threat.
Manager Maurizio Sarri tried once again to play without a striker, but the result was predictable. Eden Hazard was ineffective as a false nine and his wingers were out of sync. The attacking sequence died as soon as it reached the final third.
Double-marked for large portions of the match, Hazard was neutralized from the beginning. He was kept a safe distance from the most dangerous areas of the pitch, often forced to take refuge on the perimeter of the 18-yard box. Sometimes, he was ignored completely.
Out of desperation, Chelsea hoofed the ball into the penalty area, hoping that N’Golo Kante, standing a whole 5-foot-5, would create something, anything, to spark a comeback.
The second half was even worse. Chelsea had nearly all of the ball – and did nothing with it. Arsenal, who pressed the Blues hard from the first whistle, had no reason to fear Chelsea’s attack. The odd time the visitors broke the lines, Arsenal found a way to recover, making a series of excellent tackles.
If only Chelsea had Gonzalo Higuain a few days ahead of schedule. On a night like this one, he would’ve been the difference. Sarri could’ve stretched the field with Hazard on his favorable left side – Arsenal happily ceded space on the flanks as they clogged up the center of the pitch – and Higuain’s meandering runs could’ve pulled defenders out of position.
Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia likely would’ve debated the merits of signing Higuain, who, at 31 years old, contradicts the club’s policy to recruit players under 30. But there’s no questioning Higuain’s effectiveness on a team that functions like Sarri’s. He’s not only a prolific striker, but an overall workhorse who can combine with his teammates. He fits right into Sarri’s idea of collective football.
That synergy is nowhere to be seen right now. Sarri said after Saturday’s defeat that it had more to do with his players’ weak mentality than tactics, describing the group as “extremely difficult to motivate.” A lack of character may have something to do with it, but the entire approach is worth questioning. There’s no killer instinct in the final third and there’s not enough energy on display.
Higuain can and will provide that. The fat jokes belie the truth about the Argentine, who, despite his bulkier frame, offers himself in every sense on the pitch. He’s willing to drop deep and switch play and is capable of scoring on the run, routinely banging in goals from difficult positions. These are the kinds of attributes that Chelsea lack: players who are less static and predictable when in possession.
Higuain’s not in any way a motivational leader, but he’s a strong personality who isn’t afraid to confront his teammates if they’re idling in neutral. Sarri’s quotes would suggest the manager needs someone to shake Chelsea out of their lull.
The problem is the complete absence of patience at Chelsea. There’s already a chorus of supporters who want Sarri to be sacked. Higuain has to hit the ground running, or risk being run out of town with the manager who brought him over.