Antonio Conte must see something the rest of us don’t when it comes to Eden Hazard.
Chelsea’s manager has persisted with the idea that the Belgian benefits the team as a false 9 despite little evidence to back his thinking.
Hazard was asked to play the role again against Man City on Sunday and his displeasure was obvious.
Up against a possession-dominant team like Pep Guardiola’s side, Hazard’s ineffectiveness was exaggerated.
After 35 minutes, a Sky Sports graphic popped up in the bottom left hand corner that showed Hazard had touched the ball just eight times.
A forward being deprived of possession isn’t uncommon against City but Chelsea have one of world football’s great potential match-winners in Hazard.
The Belgian is unplayable at his best and if you want to come away from the Etihad with something surely your plan should hinge on making use of your best player?
Hazard’s quotes after the game were telling.
“When you leave the pitch you have the impression that you’ve ran, but that you haven’t played a game of football,” he told Belgian media.
“We could have played on for three hours, and I wouldn’t touch a ball.”
Presumably, Conte favours a mobile front three in such games.
Pedro, Willian and Hazard have the pace to counterattack effectively and are capable at pressing high up the pitch, not that Chelsea did much pressing at all on Sunday.
This tactic fails for every minute of the game a breakaway three-on-three isn’t on, which is a lot.
I would argue that playing your best player out of position is inexcusable.
Conte’s trust in Alvaro Morata has evaporated in alignment with the Spaniard’s downturn in form and Olivier Giroud’s lack of mobility seems to be working against him when it comes to selection for big games.
But from what we’ve seen of Hazard as a false 9, you would back either of the more traditional No9s to be a greater influence.
Chelsea have impressed in certain games with Hazard playing centrally but any positive results have been in spite of such a tactical decision, not because of it.
Hazard’s greatest asset is his dribbling and to do that he needs to be facing the goal with the ball at his feet and plenty of space ahead of him.
Such a scenario is far less common for a No9 as it is for Hazard’s favoured position on the left of front three with licence to come deep and roam.
As it is, Hazard is spending more time jumping for headers with defenders a foot taller than him, than beating them for pace.
Some would argue a player must also take responsibility for their form but this seems like such a blatant tactical issue.
All things considered, Conte is a wonderful manager.
Let’s not forget he started the three-at-the-back revolution and masterminded a title win just last season.
But his handling of Hazard could prove fatal, especially with a boss of Roman Abramovich’s impatience.