Eden Hazard woe as Chelsea’s roughed-up false nine toils at Manchester City
Belgian playmaker trudged a lonely path, a caged bird in a No 10 shirt, as reigning champions were beaten despite adopting an ultra defensive approach
With 89 minutes gone at a drenched, slightly woozy Etihad Stadium Eden Hazard was taken off, bringing to an end an afternoon spent chasing fruitlessly as the most false of false nines. Antonio Conte was standing at the edge of his rectangle as his star player marched off at a pointed clip. Hazard passed without a glimmer. Not a jot. Not a flinch. This was not a blanking. It was an erasure.
And with good reason, some might say. For all the perennial summer rumours, Hazard cares about this Chelsea team and has been a fine servant. This, though, was an afternoon that must rank with his most miserable in England.
Hazard was roughed up with his back to goal. He chased gamely. He made almost zero dribbles. Hazard likes dribbling: he is very good at it. But twice now in 10 days he has instead been asked to watch while creative opponents, his de facto peers, have been allowed to express their talents while he trudges his lonely path, a caged bird in a No 10 shirt.
Conte remains convinced that there is merit in playing Hazard as a false nine, despite the fact all the evidence suggests this system could have been designed to bring the worst out of his best player.
All managers have their foibles but this has become a little painful. Hazard is one of the best players in Europe when he snipes in off the left or drops deep and takes the ball on the half turn. As a centre-forward he was once again neutered here, a peripheral Belgian interpretation of a particularly out-of-form Jermain Defoe. With 40 minutes gone Chelsea’s former player of the year, the Real Madrid ‘Galactico’ in waiting, had touched the ball eight times.
But then it was that kind of afternoon, a game of extended significant silences, lacking in some vital tension as soon as it became clear Chelsea had come here simply to sit and watch and await their own euthanasia.
The Etihad Stadium had been a little pensive at kick-off on a still, sunlit, post-blizzard Manchester afternoon. For 10 minutes almost nothing happened. With 15 minutes gone City almost worked a shot at goal and the stadium growled and roared suddenly, like a man on a train waking up with a start.
Chelsea were not just limp here. They were flaccid, crouched behind their guard without a counter‑punch, the kind of approach one might expect from a mid-table opponent fearful of embarrassment but not from the defending champions.
The flip-side of this is City’s brilliance this season, a team operating on a different level from its domestic peers. Here they started with three outfield players who could reasonably be described as defensive, and a 21‑year‑old Ukrainian midfielder at left‑back.
Not that Chelsea got near seeking out any weak points. For the second time in 10 days Conte fielded a team to sit and wait against the kind of opponents who can pull a side apart like a master surgeon playing a very slow, deadly, patient game of pick-a-stick.
In the opening hour City made 628 passes, a pass every six seconds. Just watching from the sidelines is enough to make one go cross eyed. Playing against it must be a uniquely draining assault on the senses.
Leroy Sané unveiled a few of those Ski Sunday dribbles. And for most of the first half Sané was the only real point of illumination, a player in one of those sweet spots of form and fitness where just watching him take the ball or set off on a gliding run is a pure pleasure in itself.
The problem with defending like a soggy, suffocating blanket is it takes only one slip to ruin the day. For Chelsea that moment came 33 seconds after half-time as Andreas Christensen miskicked in just the wrong spot, handing the ball to Sergio Agüero, who laid it on to David Silva. Bernardo Silva then nipped in to finish his low cross with his shin.
And that was pretty much that. A 1-0 defeat is no disgrace against a team of City’s capacities. But is it time to talk about the product? Whisper it but the Premier League does not do narrative tension any more. Of the last six seasons only one – Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, and all that – has delivered anything resembling a title race. How long can we reasonably expect to remain excited by a three-month jostle for a place in the top four?
Not that Chelsea ever seemed likely to apply the kind of pressure Liverpool managed at Anfield, to take a grip on the lapels of this City team. Instead it was an afternoon when the title race took another giant step towards its own conclusion, in a game most notable for that pointed silence and for a sense of endings on all sides.