Why Hazard's false nine role spells trouble for Chelsea misfit Morata

The Belgian winger’s effective performance in last weekend’s win over Manchester City could mean even fewer starts for the struggling Spanish striker

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Alvaro Morata is set to start against MOL Vidi on Thursday night. Despite it being a dead rubber, the stakes are high for the Spaniard.

After being left out of the squad for last weekend’s thrilling Premier League win over the previously undefeated Manchester City, Morata is a man under more pressure than ever before.

The reason why? Eden Hazard.

For the visit of City, Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri opted to play the Belgian winger as a ‘false nine’ for the first time since taking charge at Stamford Bridge during the summer, springing a surprise that caught everyone, including Pep Guardiola, by surprise.

Despite limited time on the ball, Hazard performed well, racking up assists for both goals, by picking out N’Golo Kante for the opener, and then delivering the corner from which David Luiz sealed Chelsea’s shock victory.

As a result, Sarri may well decide to play Hazard through the middle again, particularly against the strongest opposition, which would only mean further frustration for Morata in his, so far, underwhelming Blues career.

Some speculated that Sarri might well employ a ‘false nine’ when he first arrived in west London, given he successfully transformed another Belgian winger, Dries Mertens, into a striker at former club Napoli. 

However, that switch had been born of necessity, namely an injury to his first-choice centre-forward, Arkadiusz Milik. Given he had Morata and Olivier Giroud to choose from at Chelsea, the use of a ‘false nine’ initially appeared unlikely.

Furthemore, it was pointed out that Morata has the pace to play in a counter-attacking system, and while he isn’t a dribbler, he is quick off the mark when running in behind defences.

However, while Morata has his attributes, he has been unable to earn the trust of either Sarri or his previous manager, Antonio Conte, in the 18 months since joining the club from Real Madrid at a cost of £58 million ($77m) plus add-ons.

Ever since Chelsea dipped into the January transfer market and signed Olivier Giroud for £18m from Arsenal, Morata has been in and out of the starting line-up. 

He has hit seven goals in all competitions this season – more than Giroud – but there’s a perception among many observers that the Frenchman links up better with his team-mates.

Even more worryingly for Morata, there is a perception that he is not mentally strong enough to succeed at the very highest level, a view now apparently shared by Sarri. 

“It’s difficult,” the Italian recently mused. “At Empoli, I had a wonderful player, Riccardo Saponara, whom we sold to AC Milan. Saponara was one of the best players I have ever seen, but a little bit mentally fragile.

“Alvaro has scored four or five goals in his last six matches, so I cannot see a big problem. I hope that there will be more this season.

“Every season he scores 15 or 16 goals, so he’s around his average [goal return]. I speak with him every week, but on the pitch he is alone.

“I think that at the moment he’s not playing to his full potential. It’s difficult.”

Certainly, a striker with Morata’s pedigree and price tag should be taking the Europa League by storm but while his team-mates have been providing him with plenty of chances, he has been taking too few of them.

Chelsea dominated PAOK FC in their opening game, with Morata starting, but he misfired badly in Greece. In the second game, at home to Thursday night’s opponents, Morata needed eight chances to net and he looked emotional upon scoring, burying his head into the shoulder of Willian.

The west London club have had more shots than any other team in the group stage, but rank only 35th in terms of their conversion rate, having won three of their five matches with a 1-0 scoreline.

Morata, therefore, could really do with exhibiting the kind of clinical finishing that has been so conspicuous by its absence during his Chelsea career against Vidi.

Indeed, Sarri would even be happy to see his striker shed a few more tears. “If after a goal he wants to cry, I hope to see him cry very often!” he said after the home game.

Morata has played in two Champions League finals yet he is arguably under more pressure going into this dead rubber against a squad of 23 players worth less than half of what he cost upon moving from Madrid.

He is no longer just competing with the equally profligate Giroud for a starting spot in Chelsea’s biggest games. He now has Hazard breathing down his neck and that spells trouble for Morata unless he starts scoring regularly again.

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