Antonio Conte has been trying out different players as strikers in Chelsea FC’s pre-season matches. The likes of new signing Michy Batshuayi, Bertrand Traore, Eden Hazard and even Ruben Loftus-Cheek have all played up front for the Blues so far.
Two out of these four players are not strikers in the traditional sense but have had to operate as makeshift forwards under their new Italian manager. The latest player to have been brought into this new role is Eden Hazard, who has played most of his life as a left winger.
In his post match press conference, Conte explained after Chelsea’s 3-2 pre-season loss to Real Madrid that he prefers to field Hazard up front, rather than on the wing.
“Eden Hazard played 30 minutes and he is recovering a good shape. I like him in this position, like a forward, and he can be a good solution for us. Also playing as a winger,” Conte was quoted as saying in Chelsea’s official website.
However, the former Juventus and Italy boss also admitted that Hazard needs to get into better shape if the Belgian wants to succeed in his new role as a second striker.
“To play as a second forward he must improve his shape but he is working and he knows his shape can a lot in the same way as the other players,” said Conte.
Conte often uses systems where certain players have to perform dual roles. In Italy, where he fielded the rather unorthodox 3-5-2 formation, the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini, Georgio Chiellini, Antonio Candreva often had to operate in dual roles to fit Conte’s style.
Giaccherini normally operated as a creative midfielder but doubled up as a left winger when the Azzurri attacked. Similarly, Candreva kept switching between the right wing-back and the right-wing positions, while defending and attacking respectively. Meanwhile, Chiellini, who was a part of the famous three-man defence of Italy, often doubled up as a left full-back during attack.
Hazard is a highly technical player who has a lot of pace and has a good finishing ability to boot. While he has operated as an attacking midfielder on occasions under former boss Jose Mourinho, it will be interesting to see which role he performs once the season gets underway.
Another Chelsea player who has been played out of position recently is young midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek. While one can still imagine Hazard playing as a second striker (due to his pace and technical ability), no one could have thought that Conte would play Loftus-Cheek as the target man.
When one thinks about it, however, there is much simplicity in the Italian’s thinking in this regard. The 20-year-old Chelsea man has a huge 6’3″ frame and is also technically good on the ball. It would make him an ideal player to play as a target man whose main role will be to hold the ball up and feed it to his teammates.
“Ruben is a bit tired but he tried to work and to fight for the team. I’m happy with his attitude and behaviour and I know he can play in this role and play good football,” siad Conte.
Loftus-Cheek has some experience in playing as a central attacking midfielder. Under Conte’s system, the Englishman merely has to play a bit further up the pitch, if needed. Loftus-Cheek’s good passing ability and vision to find the perfect through pass will act as an added advantage in this regard.
What does the future hold for Diego Costa?
With so many non-strikers being deployed up front by Conte, a couple of questions come to mind. Why is Conte not playing Diego Costa as a target man? Is the Spaniard about to take a transfer away from Chelsea?
To answer the former question, Conte was swift to confirm that the Spaniard is not being fielded because he is injured at the moment. The Italian said, “I can say that today Costa is a Chelsea player. He didn’t play in these games because of injury and if he solves the injury and I see in training he’s in good shape, it can be possible to see him in the next game against Milan. But I can tell only this.”
However, when asked about Costa’s future at Chelsea, Conte was a bit more hesitant. The former Juve boss even went on to project uncertainty about Costa’s future at the club saying, “Today Costa is Chelsea’s player. Tomorrow if you ask me if Costa will remain with us, I don’t know.”
Conte is known to be a strict disciplinarian who prefers hard work to talent. He famously left the likes of Mario Balotelli and Giacomo Bonaventura out of his 23-man Italian squad for the 2016 European Championships because of that very reason. Even within the squad, Conte repeatedly benched Napoli’s star forward Lorenzo Insigne and fielded Southampton and Inter Milan fringe players, Graziano Pelle and Eder.
Thus it would be no surprise if the Italian were to cast aside Chelsea’s star striker, who has been linked with a move to Atletico Madrid this summer. However, the Rojiblancos have signed French striker Kevin Gameiro earlier this week, which more or less rules out Costa’s move to the Vicente Calderon. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona and PSG are all said to be looking to sign a new striker at the moment and things could get interesting if one of these clubs’ view Costa as a potential signing.