Chelsea: The False Nine and What It Means

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Chelsea rolled out against Manchester City with starting Hazard up top as a false nine. This might provide insight as to how Chelsea plan to catch up to the top of the table.

After suffering a worrying midweek loss to Wolves, Chelsea had only won one game out of the last four. They needed to respond in a big way against the undefeated Manchester City. What eventually ended in a 2-0 win for the Blues, Chelsea began the game differently than they had all season. Instead of playing either Giroud or Morata up top, Maurizio Sarri started with Hazard as the false nine. Though City also started with a false nine, Chelsea didn’t do it out of necessity. Instead, it was a tactical decision made by Sarri prior to the game. How could this shape to the rest of Chelsea’s season?

Versatility Within Sarri-Ball

We are now 16 games into the Premier League season and have seen the wonders and terrors of Sarri-Ball. As in most tactical approaches to the game, the team has to either fully buy into the style of play or the side completely falls apart. Sarri-ball specifically, though, needs everyone to stay disciplined and focused for 90-minutes and doesn’t provide much room for versatility. Or so we thought. (If you need a refresher of how Sarri-Ball is played, Goal.com provides a solid breakdown of the system).

Individually, Man City boasts a much better side than Chelsea and Sarri prepared his side as such:

We thought yesterday that for the first time in the season that there was a possibility to have more spaces – so we wanted to try with Eden – because for the first time there was a possibility to play on the counter-attack.

Willian, Hazard and Pedro are really very suitable for this kind of play, so it is a normal choice. I think that it is really a very good option and maybe we will try it again in the future. Especially for certain matches.

Sarri-Ball can lend itself to a counter attack style of play, which is what we saw at Stamford Bridge Saturday. It will be interesting to see if Chelsea lines up with a false nine against other teams outside of Man City, who they play again February 9th. Or if Sarri makes a mid-game adjustment depending on the flow of the game.

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Where Morata Stands

For the first time this season, Alvaro Morata was completely dropped from the matchday squad. Instead, Hazard started up top and Giroud started on the bench to later come on for Hazard in the 89th minute. Just weeks ahead of the January transfer window, it appears Sarri has given up on the Spanish striker. The manager said otherwise, though:

I think [a decision like this] is normal, it was a choice for this kind of match. I don’t know if in Brighton we will play in the same way or not, maybe not. I don’t know. I think Alvaro is able to understand that it is only a tactical decision, it is not the final choice.

Regardless of Sarri’s words, it is fair to say Morata has completely underwhelmed in his first season and a half with the club. Though there have been moments where we saw the Morata Chelsea thought they had in a club-record fee striker. He has been nothing close to worth the $75m that was spent.

Now that Sarri has tested and succeeded with the false nine, he has another option for how to set up his side. And this option doesn’t have to include the struggling Morata.

Hazard’s Style of Play

Hazard put in a solid shift as the false nine on Saturday, but it was by playing a way we don’t typically see him play. For the first time this season, Hazard played more than 30 minutes and didn’t register a shot. He only had 2% of the possession of the game and to put that into perspective, City’s goalkeeper Emerson had 2.8%. He only completed 66.7% of his passes, his lowest completion rate all season by a significant amount. Hazard really struggled to impose himself.

Obviously, a false nine will post different numbers than to true number nine, but those numbers, especially the pass completion, are some that should be slightly worrisome if this is a system Sarri wants to seriously consider using in the future. Is it worth it to pull Hazard out of his best position in the midfield to play as a false nine? It seemed to be this week but we will have to see in during the rest of the season.

Chelsea’s next set of games, starting Thursday against Vidi in the Europa League are all games they should win. In other words, we shouldn’t see Chelsea playing a counter-attacking style with a false nine. Unless the craziness of the Premier League’s schedule forces Sarri’s hand, the next match that would make sense to play this way would be January 19th, a match against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium.

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