How Maurizio Sarri got the best out of Chelsea transfer target Gonzalo Higuain at Napoli
Since starting in the surprise 2-1 defeat to Wolves at the start of December, Morata has been involved in only one matchday squad in Chelseas last six games, while Giroud has started just nine games out of a possible 28 this season.
Sarris original Plan B option has increasingly become his Plan A with Eden Hazard shifting infield from his customary role on the left wing to line up as Chelseas auxiliary frontman in each of their previous four Premier League matches.
It is a move that has paid off rather well with Hazard contributing three goals and three assists in those games from his (relatively) new position. Yet while the Belgian has adapted impressively, it seems a temporary fix to a long-term problem. Chelsea are yet to find a suitable replacement for Diego Costa.
Hazards importance to the side is reflected by the fact that his ten goals and nine assists equate to 51% of Chelseas total in the Premier League and Sarri will be acutely aware that a failure to supplement his star man with another goalscorer could prove costly to Chelseas top four aspirations.
According to reports, Sarri is keen to alleviate his attacking problems by reuniting himself with one of his former charges at Napoli, Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently midway through a rather unhappy season-long stint at AC Milan from Juventus. He only has five league goals this season, as many as Morata has managed.
The pair only worked together for one season (2015-16) but it was certainly a successful one. Higuain managed to break a Serie A goal record that had stood for 66-years by netting 36 goals in just 35 games, beating Gunnar Nordahls haul of 35 for Milan in 1950.
In a career that has spanned 14 full seasons, that was the only time that Higuain managed more than 27 goals in a single campaign and after a hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of Frosinone secured his place in the record books, Higuain was quick to acknowledge the man whod helped him achieve it.
I thank Maurizio Sarri, absolutely, which is why after the third goal I went to hug him on the touchline, he said. He helped me so much, he always told me what I had to do in order to improve and I always listened.
The mutual respect between the pair is clear but how did Sarri manage to get the best out of Higuain and what could that mean for Chelseas tactics should he complete a move to the club next month?
Higuain had already been at Napoli for two years prior to Sarris appointment in 2015 but in two seasons under Rafa Benitez, the Argentine managed 35 league goals, compared to 36 in one under the Spaniards successor.
Sarri arrived in Naples from Empoli with a reputation for playing a 4-3-1-2 system. Originally, it was assumed that he would replicate that system at his new club with one of Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens or Manolo Gabbiadini partnering Higuain up front and Lorenzo Insigne floating in behind.
Instead, he decided to build his attack around Higuain, placing him in the middle of a three-pronged attack with Callejon to the right of him, Insigne to the left and Marek Hamsik given license to spring forward and provide support from an inside left role in central midfield.
Suffice to say, it worked spectacularly. Although Napoli finished nine points behind champions Juventus, they out-scored them 80 goals to 75 while also creating the highest number of chances in Serie A that season with 508 – 42 more than Juventus.
That Higuain scored just under half of Napolis league goals that season shows how much of their attacking play ran through him. No players in Serie A combined for more league goals that season than Hamsik to Higuain with seven, while Insigne and Callejon assisted him four and three times respectively.
Sarri doesnt have the same presence up front at Chelsea. While Hazard acts as a roving, roaming focal point who is heavily involved in build-up play, Higuain is more static in comparison, tending to operate within the confines of the 18-yard-box, occupying central defenders and latching onto passes played in behind or cut-back from the byline.
Hazard has performed well in his role as a central forward yet it is in the spaces between the touchline and the penalty area that he does his best work, weaving in and out of challenges and making something happen either for himself or teammates.
Although he has shown a more ruthless side to his game this season, Hazard has never possessed the thirst for goals that Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi have had as wide forwards. Hazard is a dribbler first, goalscorer second and assister third. In the Premier League he has 75 goals and 45 assists, highlighting his dual threat as goalscorer and provider.
Antonio Conte acknowledged this point, saying after a Champions League game against Atletico Madrid: Sometimes, if Eden scores one goal, hes happy. And then, if there is another situation, he prefers to make an assist rather than scoring twice.
In contrast, Higuain is a goalscorer first, second and third. The Argentines single-minded approach to goalscoring is similar to that of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, another penalty box predator that made the art of goalscoring look easy.
Back in August, Sarri admitted his regret at not landing Higuain after he completed his move to Milan and the subsequent form of Morata and Giroud will have only further convinced him that a reunion with the striker would be beneficial to his project at Stamford Bridge.
While both Sarri and Higuain seem eager for the deal to get done, it looks a complicated one to get over the line. For starters, Milan paid Juventus a reported £16.3m to take him on loan and have a clause to make the deal permanent for £32.6m.
It is unlikely that Milan would be willing to terminate the loan considering how much they spent to make it happen and if they decide to make it a permanent deal in order to sell him on, theyd expect some sort of profit on the total £49.9m fee.
Whether Chelsea would be willing to sanction upwards of £50m on a striker who will turn 32 next December is another potential sticking point, particularly considering the clubs policy of handing over 30s no more than one-year contract extensions.
That being said, it is a deal that would suit all parties. Chelsea would acquire a striker with a proven track record, Juventus and AC Milan would rid themselves of a high-earning player they dont need and Higuain would be re-united with a coach with whom he enjoyed the best season of his career.
With Sarri in need of a striker and Higuain in need of a fresh start, a move to Chelsea this January could be a genuine possibility.