A midseason tactical switch sparked Chelsea’s surge to the Premier League title two years ago under Antonio Conte.
Could the same happen under his successor this season?
For the first time in his debut season at Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri deployed a lineup without a genuine striker for the match against Manchester City on Saturday. The result? A 2-0 win over the previously unbeaten leaders that brought Chelsea back into contention for the title.
Sarri has previous experience here.
At Napoli, he used diminutive winger Dries Mertens as a makeshift center forward, flanked by two small guys in Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon in a fluid, mobile front three. Mertens responded with 46 goals in two seasons, Napoli was one of the most thrilling teams to watch in Europe, and Sarri’s side almost ended Juventus’ domination of Serie A.
Against City, Sarri dropped Alvaro Morata from the squad, left fellow striker Olivier Giroud on the bench and started with Eden Hazard as the so-called “false nine” with Willian and Pedro Rodriguez on either side. Hazard struggled at first — he was seen throwing his arms out in despair at times — but grew into the role and finished the game with two assists.
“We wanted to try with Eden because, for the first time, there was the possibility to play in counterattacks,” Sarri said. “Hazard, Pedro and Willian are really very suitable for this kind of playing, so I think it’s a normal choice. I think that it’s really a very good option.”
Whether Sarri opts to use this approach against teams who, unlike City, sit back and defend remains to be seen. It seems ideal for away games — a trip to Brighton is next for Chelsea — and matches against big rivals at home.
Giroud and Morata have alternated as the classic target man for Chelsea this season but neither striker has done enough to make the position their own. Morata, in particular, has struggled in his second season in England, with Sarri having said the Spain striker was mentally fragile.
Two years ago, it was Conte’s switch to a three-man backline that was the catalyst for a 13-game winning run that blew away its rivals and saw the team cruise to the title.
Chelsea is eight points behind first-place Liverpool ahead of a kind schedule of games over the busy festive period in England.
It was a tough weekend for strikers in general in the Premier League.
City looked increasingly rudderless at Stamford Bridge without the injured Sergio Aguero and the dropped Gabriel Jesus as Pep Guardiola’s side fell to its first loss of the season. Tottenham went with winger Son Heung-min over the rested Harry Kane or his backup, Fernando Llorente, for its 2-0 win at Leicester. Wolverhampton Wanderers deployed a front three of attacking midfielders in their 2-1 victory at Newcastle.
Then there was Liverpool, who started Mohamed Salah as the focal point of its attack against Bournemouth — as opposed to Roberto Firmino — and was rewarded with hat trick from the Egypt forward.
The general trend in the English top flight has been for teams to play with one conventional striker up front in recent years but that is being ripped up in a bid for more fluidity and to better stretch defenses.
One of the few strikers to enjoy the weekend was Romelu Lukaku, who was among Manchester United’s scorers in a 4-1 win over Fulham.
The Belgium international now has two goals in three league games as he looks to shrug off a slump in form that saw him go the previous 12 games without scoring for his club.
Lukaku said he he’d had “good conversations” with United manager Jose Mourinho in recent days because he had not been playing with enough aggression or intensity. He attributed that to bulking up too much at the World Cup in Russia.
“When you are in the Premier League, I cannot play with the same amount of muscle as international football here in the Prem(ier League),” Lukaku said. “That was something that when I came back I knew straightaway, ‘No, no, I cannot play in this style like this.’
“I had to lose muscle basically, yes. So you just stay out of the gym, drink a lot of water, and a lot of vegetables and fish and it helps.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80