If only Chelsea had a centre forward they could be champions… the club are still paying the price of Antonio Conte ditching Diego Costa
- Chelsea and Spain forward Alvaro Morata doesn’t especially look like scoring
- The striker was ineffectual during Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United
- A Ross Barkley equaliser six minutes into stoppage time saved a point for Blues
- Chelsea did have Diego Costa to offer a foil to Eden Hazard’s creative brilliance
In the first 45 minutes, Romelu Lukaku touched the ball nine times. It doesn’t take an A-level in advanced mathematics to work out that ratio. Once every five minutes. And here’s the thing. He still wasn’t the most ineffectual striker out there.
If Real Madrid holds continued appeal for Eden Hazard it may be because he rather fancies the idea of somebody — anybody — getting on the end of his assists. That Madrid are now coming off the back of the longest barren scoring run in their history is no deterrent. It still has to be better than being the supply line for Alvaro Morata.
It is not that he does not score very often, more that he doesn’t especially look like scoring, or that he isn’t driven by scoring. At one stage in the first half, before Manchester United shut him down, Hazard got round Ashley Young and struck a perfect ball across the edge of the six-yard box. All it needed was a touch, but for a touch it needed a striker, and Morata was still moping around 15 yards from goal.
Alvaro Morata, who started against Manchester United, doesn’t especially look like scoring
There was no urgency to engage with what Hazard was doing, just as there was little sense of the goalscorer’s instinct when Hazard put Morata in two minutes after half-time. He needed three touches before getting a shot away, which was weak and comfortably saved by David de Gea.
Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri described United as having the strongest squad in the Premier League before this game and while that appraisal might be disputed, undoubtedly they have three forwards who would be of more use to Chelsea than Morata.
Lukaku had an ordinary game with ordinary service but he is a physical threat; Anthony Martial got both United goals, meaning he has scored in consecutive games for the first time since January; Marcus Rashford was disappointing, but we all know his potential.
This was far from United’s most potent 90 minutes — they didn’t have a shot on target until the second half — but compared to Morata’s contribution they were positively dynamic.
In first half, Romelu Lukaku touched ball nine times but he wasn’t the most ineffectual striker
He falls over, a lot. Whether this is to win free-kicks, or sympathy, or the result of a savage inner ear infection affecting balance, it is impossible to say. If Sarri picks him ahead of Olivier Giroud because of superior link play, it was hard to see evidence of that either.
Instead, a Ross Barkley equaliser six minutes into stoppage time saved a point, and sparked the touchline fury of Jose Mourinho, who reacted when provoked by Sarri’s second assistant coach, Marco Ianni. Undoubtedly, Ianni was in the wrong, and Sarri acknowledged that.
Equally, Mourinho could have risen above the coach’s childish celebrations in front of the United bench. Given his track record, the FA might be less receptive to Mourinho’s mitigation. The official line is that the governing body will see what is in referee Mike Dean’s report.
The outcome left nobody happy. Sarri preferred the point to defeat, obviously, but was upset his team lost their way in the second half. ‘We lost control of the match because we stopped playing our football, and we started to play another one with the long ball, the second ball and we are not used to playing like this,’ he said.
Maurizio Sarri described United as having the strongest squad in Premier League before clash
‘For 60 minutes, we played our short passes at high speed and we were in control. We need to do this. So I have to study this match very well because we can learn a lot.’
Mourinho thought his side deserved to win and although he did not find many seconders for that view, any manager whose team are leading six minutes into stoppage time is entitled to expect three points.
It must be very frustrating for Mourinho to be at the helm of a team with defensive weakness, but that is the irony of United right now. It is claimed that Mourinho has made them too negative, but it is at the back where they are most flawed.
Paul Pogba’s slack marking from a set- piece cost the first goal — the first corner in 54 that Chelsea have scored from this season — and the scrambled winner followed a corner, too. United are better leaning towards gung-ho, chasing a game, and have taken four points in their last two matches from losing positions.
So United have attacking players struggling to defend, while Chelsea are trying to play an expansive style with personnel not naturally inclined in that area, however liberating they might find it.
A Ross Barkley equaliser six minutes into stoppage time saved a point for Blues on Saturday
Before his sale, Chelsea had Diego Costa to offer a foil to Eden Hazard’s creative brilliance
If Chelsea do not end up as title-contenders this season, they will surely be so next year. As it is, they are flawed. Morata is a point of weakness, while Jorginho pulls strings from deep and has scored one goal in club football since November 26, 2017. Ahead of him is N’Golo Kante, who is a defensive midfielder playing an unfamiliar role and Mateo Kovacic, who last scored on January 29, 2017.
Willian is a forward but also a hard worker, which leaves Hazard as Chelsea’s real threat. It is testament to his talents that he has taken them this far — but in two recent games, away at West Ham and in the second half here, he has been identified as the key to it all, and closed down.
When Hazard has been the Premier League’s best player — 2014-15 and 2016-17 — Chelsea have won the title. Yet in those campaigns, Chelsea also had Diego Costa to offer a foil to his creative brilliance. That is what may be missing this season.
So far, Hazard has been able to go it alone with eight goals, but who will pick up the slack if opponents shackle him? Chelsea’s front six are mainly link men, toilers, pivots and passers. A title challenge may need more. Strangely enough, it may need precisely what is being rather taken for granted at Manchester United.
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