It’s been a trying time for Chelsea over the past few weeks, and it’s not likely to get any easier on Saturday when Newcastle United come to Stamford Bridge.
It’s not necessarily the quality that Newcastle possesses that should trouble Chelsea. In truth, Newcastle have struggled this season. Despite sitting in 15th place, they’re still in the midst of a relegation battle, just two points ahead of 18th-placed Southampton.
The major factor in their struggles this season is their woeful attacking record. Newcastle have the second-worst goal return this season with just 15 goals scored. Only last-place Cardiff City have scored fewer goals.
But on Saturday, what will trouble Chelsea is Newcastle’s style of play. As of late, Chelsea have struggled to create chances against teams that sit deep and defend, and that’s exactly what they’re going to face against Newcastle United.
A big part of that is Chelsea’s lack of an effective striker. With Alvaro Morata short of confidence and form and Olivier Giroud providing the qualities of a target man but not much else, Maurizio Sarri has started deploying Eden Hazard in the striker role.
That hasn’t worked out as well as Sarri would have hoped. At Napoli, Sarri successfully converted Dries Mertens from a wide attacker to a striker, but he’s having much more difficulty doing the same with Hazard.
A big part of that is that Hazard is a different player than Mertens. Hazard is more of a playmaker than a finisher. While he can finish, Hazard wants to be on the ball in deeper positions where he can attack a defence rather than making runs in behind. It’s why against Tottenham and Southampton, Hazard could be seen dropping deep into midfield to receive the ball and why there often was no one in the box acting as a striker.
Morata and Giroud both had missed time over the festive period with injuries, and though Morata started and scored both goals in the FA Cup against Nottingham Forest, there’s still a question as to whether Sarri will start either one of them.
It could prove to be a fatal error in judgment, especially if Chelsea once again dominate possession in the midfield and fail to create anything resembling a clear-cut chance. With Arsenal and Manchester United now in Chelsea’s rear-view mirror in the hunt for fourth, a draw at home to Newcastle might let one of those two teams in.