Can Gonzalo Higuaín Make Sarriball Tick?
We’re about two thirds of the way through Maurizio Sarri’s first season as Chelsea manager and it’s fair to say there are some grumblings about how well his football is being implemented.
Chelsea haven’t exactly been terrible. Their expected goal difference per game of 0.60 is a touch up from last season’s 0.56. The results broadly match this, goals, both scored and conceded are within the normal range of what we’d expect considering the side’s chances. The 50 points they’ve picked up so far this season is identical to their total after 25 games last year. If Antonio Conte were managing Chelsea this season and picked up the same results, with around the same standard of performances, the narrative around Stamford Bridge would be that, in the words of our dearly beloved Prime Minister, nothing has changed.
Of course, this is all happening under not just a new manager, but one billed as a coach who can specifically build a new philosophy, moving away from Chelsea’s “defensive” reputation (a reputation that was often reductive if not wholly inaccurate) to a possession-heavy brand of entertaining football. This looked like it was happening in the early months of the season, but the club now find themselves in, if not a crisis, then at least a slump. As seen in the xG trendline, the attack has been declining since November while the defence hasn’t managed to pick up any extra slack. All of this, though, is well within the normal peaks and troughs we saw last season.
The issue everyone has pointed towards is difficulties in the system, with the view becoming that the players Chelsea currently have are not suited to the rigid style of play Sarri is insisting upon. This does have some merit. With the exception of Jorginho, an alumnus of Sarri’s Napoli side, it’s not obvious that another outfielder in his preferred starting eleven is filling exactly the role they would want to play. What this seems to lead to is all of the build up play in the first two thirds of the pitch going through Jorginho, who is not especially difficult to press out of the game. Once the ball gets into the final third, we don’t often see clear patterns of play so much as Chelsea’s traditional fall back of giving the ball to Eden Hazard in the hope that he does something brilliant and unpredictable. Since he’s Eden Hazard, he often pulls this off, but it’s not exactly the vision of sarrismo that Chelsea fans imagined when the manager was hired.
While Sarri has picked a largely settled team, upfront is where he’s been the most indecisive. The player he used most often in the role at the start of the season is Álvaro Morata. Across a season and a half at Chelsea he earned himself a reputation for missing chances, which does feel unfair. Over his full Chelsea career, he barely underperformed expected goals, scoring a well within normal range 11 from an expected total of 12.9.
Hitting 0.54 xG per 90 over his whole spell at Chelsea, Morata was totally fine at scoring goals. His pressing was also fine for what Sarri needs, with his 14.89 pressures per 90 not amazing but better than strikers such as Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku. Where there is a case for frustration, though, is in his link-up play. The Spaniard assisted just 0.21 expected goals at Chelsea this season, 0.02 per 90, a figure poorer than César Azpilicueta, David Luiz and N’Golo Kanté. He failed to complete a single open play pass into the box. This passmap in the defeat away to Wolves speaks to an all too frequent problem where Morata just wasn’t connecting with his teammates.
Olivier Giroud has had very different issues. The Frenchman has always combined aerial threat with very tidy link-up play, being the ideal sort of striker for a wide player who looks to cut inside and dominate the game such as Hazard. This has been noted by Hazard himself, who stated that “when gets the ball he can hold the ball and we can go in deep with him, so for us it’s a pleasure to play with him”. He’s also a surprisingly good presser, with his 19.69 pressures per 90 better than any striker at a top six club not named Roberto Firmino (who doesn’t even play striker a lot of the time). Where his game doesn’t quite have an impact is goals. He’s probably a little unfortunate to only get the one in the league this season with an xG of 2.62, though that in some way speaks to the strange variability of the finishing for target men like Giroud. Even if he were scoring as the model expects, 0.32 xG per 90 isn’t great, so it’s reasonable to have some concerns.
Chelsea were in a situation where neither striking options could tick both boxes of goalscoring and all round play, particularly linking with Hazard. The experiment of playing the Belgian as a striker himself rather than on the left was worthwhile, but seemed to very much irritate the club’s most talented player who seems to be agitating for a move. With the club’s recruitment process seeming very opaque since Michael Emenalo left the club, it was understandable that Sarri suggested bringing his former Napoli star Gonzalo Higuaín to the club. Sarri supposedly wanted this deal to be permanent, but a loan is what Chelsea ended up with, including the option to extend it into next season. This certainly lowers the downside, but can he be the goldilocks striker Sarri craves?
A thing that is extremely obvious to anyone who thinks about it for two seconds but nonetheless often seemingly missed in transfer deals is that footballers age. Higuaín was incredible for Sarri’s Napoli in 2015/16, scoring a record breaking 36 goals, 33 of which were not penalties. That’s something else. The following year, after a move to an admittedly more conservative but still very dominant Juventus, he managed a respectable 24 non-penalty goals. Then last year, that figure fell to 15, or 0.48 per 90 minutes. In the first half of this season, he made a fairly notable step down from Juventus to Milan, so we should cut him at least some slack for a downturn in performance. But this, well, isn’t great:
When you look at his shot map, something becomes notable visually: he’s not getting into “poacher” positions right in front of goal so frequently. Whether that’s about Milan not creating the chances, Higuaín not being told to get there, or simply a 31 year old not quite having the same burst to get ahead of defenders anymore is an open question.
Let’s be charitable for a second. Let’s say that Higuaín’s numbers declined at Juventus not due to what he was doing but because Massimiliano Allegri’s side are built to defend first and rely on the attack only when they really need it. And let’s say that his issues at Milan were about the Rossoneri being such a mess more than anything else. Thus Higuaín should be fine at 31 now that he’s playing attacking football under a manager who knows exactly how to use him. It’s a stretch, but one you have to believe completely to say this signing will work out.
But ignore questions of his age for the time being. Will Higuaín fit in at Chelsea? We know he understands Sarri, but the question becomes about whether he understands Hazard. Player chemistry is a strange thing. Certainly, it’s possible to predict that things might work tactically, and Higuaín should be able to offer a bit more in terms of passing than Morata while holding a position and letting Hazard drift wherever he wants. But sometimes players just hit it off and sometimes they don’t. No one would have predicted that Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas would spark like they did. On the other hand, you can get Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll, the specialist crosser and specialist target man who never at Liverpool combined to score a goal.
The very early evidence so far is interesting. The first league game to feature Higuaín was a terrible 4-0 loss to Bournemouth. As one would expect from the scoreline, Chelsea were generally very poor in this match, so it’s hard to blame the new guy too much. But he also just wasn’t involved. He had the fewest touches of the ball of any outfield player in a blue shirt, with 71. He didn’t manage to produce a single shot. When looking at the passmap of the game, Higuaín and Hazard are averaging touches in almost exactly the same place, except Hazard is much more involved, while the Argentine striker is a shade of turquoise.
And then the exact opposite happened. Chelsea were superb against admittedly weak opposition in Huddersfield. Higuaín managed to not just score two goals, but also offer a much greater general threat. He had 132 touches of the ball, nearly twice as many as against Bournemouth (though he did play the full 90 minutes, rather than being substituted after 64), with a healthy five shots. Hazard looked happy playing off him, but perhaps the most pleasing thing was Higuaín’s understanding with Jorginho. Since the midfielder’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, he’s been a high volume passer who has often looked like he’s doing exactly what he’s been instructed to do, without any real connection to what’s around him. Here, he played some excellent balls through to the striker, offering a link that just hasn’t been seen this season, and one that shows up quite clearly on the passmap.
Is this the start of something? It’s very hard to say. Perhaps this team just needed one additional player who understands the system, even if he’s not quite as sharp as he once was. Maybe he really does still have it, and will thrive once more. Maybe Huddersfield were just very poor and sterner tests lie ahead. I remain something of a sceptic on whether Higuaín is the player he once was. But there is at least an idea of how this signing might actually fit into a coherent side. Chelsea’s recruitment has seemed totally at odds with various managers at times, so having someone who fits a clear profile is a step in the right direction. What it is, though, is a temporary solution to what Chelsea surely hope will be a permanent system. If Sarri is to succeed at Stamford Bridge, it cannot be in a way that is entirely reliant on an ageing loanee starting upfront. A striker owned by the club will eventually have to fill that role, and Higuaín is only keeping his seat warm.
Heaer image courtesy of the Press Association