There was great intrigue and a few jokes when newspapers lavished their back pages with the news that Chelsea were looking at bringing in former Napoli and Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain. There was talk of a ‘duplication’ of forward players, and even suggestions that an under-pressure Maurizio Sarri was trying to turn back the clock to happier days in Naples.
However there is more than desperation at play in Sarri’s move for the burly Argentinian. Below we look at key tactical, technical and statistical evidence. These look to suggest that Higuain may be the attacking piece amiss in Chelsea’s attack. This player analysis defines why he is the final piece in the evolution of Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri.
Setting Eden Hazard free
Eden Hazard, arguably among the best attackers in world football, has spoken plainly about his preference for being played on the left wing. Most feel his use of both feet, ability to play in tight spaces, trickery and finishing ability are wasted in a central position. This is especially so in a league that has embraced playing in the half-space. This is where Eden Hazard believes he is best suited.
Among the top five teams in the Premier League, only Tottenham have an equal preference in using both sides in their attacks. Their right and left sides are utilised as attacking platforms an identical 37% of the time. Chelsea’s preferred side of attack is on the left at 39%, while the right side features only slightly less at 34%.
The interesting part though is that Chelsea’s shot direction is 25% on the left but only 14% on the right. This proves that Chelsea’s left side is tactically more efficient than the right. This is the side Eden Hazard favours of course.
Statistically Hazard performs much better in the left forward position. Here he has the opportunity to run in at an angle using his ability in the half-space. He averages a pass accuracy against the top four Premier League teams of 87.5% when playing as the left forward. In the false nine position however, it amounts to just 78.5%. His dribbling success comes in at 88.5% when he plays on the left, while it ranks lower when he plays as a central forward at just 68.75%.
The tactical implications of all this are that with Gonzalo Higuain being predominantly right-footed, a left-side oriented Eden Hazard potentially has the chance to link up more effectively with the proven goalscorer. Following the stats shared above, this means that Chelsea will play their most effective player on his preferred side while accommodating one of Europe’s most lethal attackers.
This is exceptionally important for a team like Chelsea which have scored the fewest goals among the Premier League’s top five, despite registering the second highest shots per game average of 15.7. The inclusion of Higuain is a tactical necessity if Hazard is to be set free. This could also mean that Chelsea score more goals. Both situations are extremely favourable for the West Londoners.
A more complete forward
It is not that either Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata are bad players for Chelsea. Morata has scored 24 goals from 72 games for the club, while Giroud has scored 10 in Chelsea appearances despite not being a regular starter. It is that Higuain has a playing profile that more matches the current needs of a Chelsea squad in need of a goalscoring front man. Besides the fact that Higuain can score all sorts of goals, he worked closely with Maurizio Sarri for years before his big money move to Juventus in 2016. He is a player who understands the manager, and a player who the manager understands.
Below we take a closer look at not only the goal scoring abilities of Gonzalo Higuain, but also his general effectiveness in the final third.
The images above show Higuain as more than just a goalscorer. He is also a technically adept football player. The ability to dribble past the press, move into space and play a wonderfully lofted pass that matches the run of his teammate proves his completeness.
The statistics shared earlier do point out that Chelsea’s problems are not in chance creation but in scoring the created chances. This is where the 2015/16 Serie A Capocannoniere excels as a footballer. El Pipita, as Higuain is known, is an accomplished finisher. This is another big reason why Sarri was keen to land the Argentine.
Higuain is capable of every type of finish, from acrobatic volleys, twisting turns and shots from outside the penalty area and close-range predatory finishes. Tottenham’s Harry Kane has already established himself in the Premiership as a striker who can score all sorts of goals, and Gonzalo Higuain is in a similar mould. He is a forward who can score with either foot, although his preferred foot is his right. This bodes well for a Chelsea side that has suffered in front of goal this season.
The right half-space and attacking balance
With the expected shift of Hazard onto the left, the addition of Higuain could see better attacking balance from Chelsea. The top five teams apart from Manchester City generally rely on attacking balance. This affords them the chance to be more dangerous and as such potentially score more goals.
The top two goalscoring teams outside of City, Liverpool and Tottenham, attack equally from both sides. Liverpool attack on each side 36% and 37% of the time, while 37% of Tottenham’s attacks come from each side.
Higuain’s preference for playing in the right half-space will mean that at times Chelsea’s attack will be a lot more dynamic. This dynamism will relate to a wide attack, terrorising opposition midfields and defences and opening up goalscoring opportunities.
Chelsea have a technical central midfield. Players like Barkley and Kovacic have the ability to take advantage of the space left centrally by Higuain moving into the right half-space. This could translate to the attacking fluidity Chelsea need in the final third.
Chelsea’s major stumbling block this season looks to have been rectified with the signing of Gonzalo Higuain. A player of his immense ability and understanding of Sarri and his playing vision could be what it takes to lead Chelsea’s evolution under the chain-smoking Italian manager.
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