In the past few matches, Antonio Conte has used star winger Eden Hazard as a center forward. That transition has not worked for the Belgian, as his side only mustered three shots, none of which hit the target, on Sunday against Manchester City.
In football, plenty of world-class attackers have tried their skills as strikers and failed to acclimate to the isolation and patience it takes to lead the line. Alexis Sanchez, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, and many other offensive-minded players have fallen victim to that over the course of their careers, and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is the latest high-profile footballer to join that list.
In the cases of Bale and Ronaldo, they play as strikers for their national sides since Wales and Portugal need goalscorers. Ronaldo is the exception when it comes to star wingers playing the traditional No. 9 Role as he won the European Championship in 2016 while playing as a forward. Bale, like Hazard, struggles with his isolated role in the Welsh team.
Wingers in Bale’s and Hazard’s molds usually play vital roles in build-up play for their sides and draw defenders out of position with skillful dribbling out wide, which is the exact reason they fail when their coaches put them up top. Hazard shows his value to Chelsea when he runs at defenses with the ball, not when he tries to slip through the cracks of his opponents’ back line without the ball or play with his back to the goal.
Naturally, this is somewhat of a reflection on Hazard and his lack of off-the-ball ability, but it mainly proves that Antonio Conte was too ambitious against Manchester City and Barcelona. He had Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud on the bench in both games, but he elected to start with a front three of Hazard, Pedro, and Willian in both matches.
Olivier Giroud in the center would provide a strong presence to hold up the play and let Hazard get in behind the defense from the wing. The French target man has accumulated 46 career assists doing just that, and Chelsea didn’t spend close to £20 million on the 31-year-old to have him nailed to the bench.
The statistics show that the Belgian plays much better out wide than in the center. He posts a respectable rating of 7.69 on average when he starts front and center, but his rating shoots up to 8.2 when he starts on the left side. Since Conte’s 3-4-2-1 formation can see the wingers drift inside, sometimes Hazard plays as a de facto central attacking midfielder. His rating stays at an 8.2, and WhoScored says that he has scored eight goals and assisted three at that position, making him most effective as an attacking midfielder.
The 27-year-old was quite vocal with his frustrations when asked about his new role in Chelsea’s attack. Naturally, that has sparked Real Madrid rumors, so if Conte has the club’s best interests in mind, he will move the ex-Lille star back to his regular role as an inverted winger. If the Italian manager does not sacrifice his pride and admit his mistake, then the Blues’ best player could be the next Galactico.