Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Tall order for Chelsea's Gonzalo Higuain to prove age is just a number

How Argentine adapts to life in English football will be all the more crucial for him and the club because Stamford Bridge has represented something of a graveyard for ageing forwards

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri said Gonzalo Higuain conceded the FA Cup tie against Bournemouth amounted to a culture shock. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri said Gonzalo Higuain conceded the FA Cup tie against Bournemouth amounted to a culture shock. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Perhaps it was a show of humility, perhaps evidence of confidence. Whichever, few strikers pass up a chance to open his account for his new club to allow a teammate to score instead.

Gonzalo Higuain was that unlikely exception, a professional goalscorer who gifted Willian a penalty against Sheffield Wednesday.

The man who facilitated Higuain’s greatest goalscoring feats was surprised. “I was a little bit because he wants to score in every match,” said Maurizio Sarri, his former Napoli manager who has brought the Argentine to Chelsea.

“But I appreciate very much that he gave the ball to Willian. This was a wonderful start because it means he is available to the teammates for everything."

Having endeared himself to part of his supply line, Higuain’s quest for a first Chelsea goal continues instead on his Premier League debut at Bournemouth on Wednesday night. The presence of Callum Wilson is intriguing: the Bournemouth striker has a track record in England Higuain lacks but nothing like the career accomplishments, and who is a player Chelsea coveted.

The other comparisons are with the past.

Stamford Bridge has represented something of a graveyard for ageing forwards, though there are glorious exceptions to every rule. Gianfranco Zola arrived at 30 and became arguably Chelsea’s greatest player and, this season, their assistant manager.

“He’s coming from a league where the intensity and rhythms are lower than the Premier League,” the Italian said last week. Higuain is 31, though Zola argued he is in better shape than players of a similar age used to be.

But Sarri said Higuain conceded the FA Cup tie amounted to a culture shock after Serie A.

“It's not easy. In this championship it's so difficult, at the end of the game Higuain said: 'They are so aggressive'. Here it's normal. But he has the right experience.”

So, seemingly, did some of his predecessors. Andriy Shevchenko was Chelsea’s last forward addition from AC Milan and he failed. It may seem inauspicious that Higuain has taken the No 9 shirt.

Since the prolific Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s 2004 departure, it has been worn by Mateja Kezman, Hernan Crespo, Khalid Boulahrouz, Steve Sidwell, Franco di Santo and Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao and Alvaro Morata. Crespo apart, they are four striking misfits, a defender and a midfielder.

Though notions of a curse seem far-fetched when it was worn by Roy Bentley, Peter Osgood, Kerry Dixon, Gianluca Vialli and Hasselbaink further ago, Chelsea’s various No 9s have produced just 46 league goals in 15 seasons.

In contrast, Higuain famously delivered 36 Serie A goals in a season for Sarri’s Napoli, though it is a question if Sarri-ball has evolved since then. Dries Mertens excelled as false nine after the Argentine’s move to Juventus.

Sarri has often benched Olivier Giroud, and Ruud Gullit - one of Chelsea’s most successful arrivals from Serie A - said Chelsea did not require a target man.

“I hope I am wrong, but Higuain is an old-fashioned striker who needs crosses and, if he plays up front all the time, he will not see many balls there because of the way Eden Hazard and Willian play,” he told the BBC. “Those two always come inside, and dribble or shoot, and try to do things themselves.”

Indeed, after 23 games, Chelsea only ranked joint ninth for crosses. Willian is their lone representative in the list of the 25 most prolific crossers, and Sarri’s 4-3-3 can be narrow.

Higuain’s strengths extend beyond aerial ability; his movement in close quarters has been a strength and his 224 top-flight goals in Europe have come at a shot conversion rate of 19.96 per cent.

But, as Chelsea can testify, pedigree is no guarantee of prolificness.

Updated: January 30, 2019 08:37 AM

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