Chelsea attack trapped between past and future as Maurizio Sarri seeks to solve goal-scoring problems
Only 12 goals scored in their past 12 matches against Premier League opposition shows there is still much to do until "Sarriball" is unleashed at Stamford Bridge
It must be a bemusing time for a man who was a byword for goals.
Under Maurizio Sarri, Gonzalo Higuain equalled the Serie A record of 36 in a season. Under Sarri, Napoli made club history by scoring 94 times in a league campaign. Normal service seemed extended when Chelsea began the season in prolific form.
Now their past 12 games against Premier League opposition, while spread across two competitions, have brought a mere 12 goals. It is more than two months since they scored three times in a match against anyone except PAOK Salonika.
Sarri spoke of Chelsea having 18 shots against Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday, but they converted none and N’Golo Kante looked their likeliest scorer.
Which highlighted the strange situation in Chelsea’s forward line, trapped between the past and the future in what may be a transition season, subjected to competing theories and featuring the spectre of the £58 million (Dh271.2m) white elephant that is Alvaro Morata.
Perhaps the only attacker guaranteed to be at Stamford Bridge next season is one who is not there now: Christian Pulisic, the winger signed, seemingly without Sarri’s knowledge, for £58m and loaned back to Borussia Dortmund for the rest of the campaign. And as the American has scored 15 goals in 115 games for Dortmund, it may be unrealistic to expect him to be the immediate answer to Chelsea’s goal shortage.
Quite who his colleagues will be is a moot point. Callum Hudson-Odoi is the subject of a £35m bid from Bayern Munich. The fact the 18-year-old’s deal expires in 2020 gives him a strong bargaining position. The reality that Chelsea are yet to grant the winger a league start may usher him to the exit.
The benched Olivier Giroud is out of contract in the summer. Eden Hazard has described the Frenchman as the best target man in the world but, after Higuain joined Juventus, "Sarriball" evolved to feature a Belgian false nine: Dries Mertens in Italy and now Hazard, despite his preference for playing in a deeper role and using Giroud as a selfless foil.
If Hazard represents the second ticking time bomb among those only contracted until 2020, 2019 has become a year for both he and Real Madrid, yet to really replace Cristiano Ronaldo, to make decisions.
The statistics underline his indispensability: he tops Chelsea’s charts for goals, assists, dribbles, shots, key passes. Tottenham committed 10 fouls on Tuesday. Seven were on Hazard, supporting the theory that stopping him, regardless of the legality of the methods, halts Chelsea.
The sense is that others, the misfiring Morata in particular, have added to his burden. Hazard’s fellow wingers Willian and Pedro are in their thirties and both are also out of contract in 2020.
If the Brazilian has perhaps been underrated and the Spaniard overrated in their Chelsea careers, men who have seemed interchangeable could be competing for a solitary place in the squad next season. The forgotten man Victor Moses will surely be gone. Morata, blessed with the talent but lacking the durability or the mental strength, is altogether harder to ignore.
By and large, they amount to problems Sarri inherited, not created, though his preference for experience may have counted against Hudson-Odoi, though a promising display against Spurs should encourage the Italian to use him more as part of a campaign of persuasion.
Yet if demoting Willian and Pedro in the pecking order has a long-term logic, the immediacy of a battle for fourth place at a club who tend to sack managers who fail to qualify for the Uefa Champions League may hold greater sway.
Not for the first time, Chelsea’s forward thinking may not stray much beyond the short term.
Updated: January 10, 2019 08:23 AM