Chelsea: Olivier Giroud should return to scoring goals post-Eden Hazard

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 01: Olivier Giroud of Chelsea is challenged by Simon Francis of AFC Bournemouth during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and AFC Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge on September 1, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 01: Olivier Giroud of Chelsea is challenged by Simon Francis of AFC Bournemouth during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and AFC Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge on September 1, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images) /

Chelsea cannot expect any one player to replace Eden Hazard’s offensive productivity, but they can demand more from their strikers. One start would be Olivier Giroud returning to his leading man role after a summer and a season as supporting space-maker.

An easy way to set a player up for failure is to say he should, can or will fill the void left by Eden Hazard. Simply in terms of goals and assists this would require a better player than Chelsea have or will have for the foreseeable future. Those basic offensive contributions need to be a combined effort from the entire forward corps.

As far as the intangibles Hazard brought – drawing multiple defenders towards him, creating so much out of so little, drawing fouls, offering that last-ditch option of “get the ball to Hazard and he’ll come up with something to win this game” – the Blues should be building a season strategy and match plans around the squad they have, not trying to replace the luxuries of the irreplaceable. Hazard permitted a certain level of comfort and complacency that is just not coming back. The sooner the Blues accept that and move, on the better.

The seasons in which Chelsea leaned the most on Eden Hazard were the ones in which their strikers were the most deficient. With Hazard gone, the pressure mounts on the strikers to do their primary, titular job.

Olivier Giroud is the most proven goal-scoring striker Chelsea have. Over his Premier League career at Arsenal and Chelsea he averages one goal every 164 minutes. His first season and a half at Chelsea are well off that mark, with 2018/19 seeing him score only twice in 832 Premier League minutes. However, in the Europa League last season, he scored 11 goals in 1,119 minutes: one every 101 minutes, barely shy of his best output in a campaign of 500 or more minutes for club or country.

Giroud’s goal scoring for France provides the useful comparison to last season at Chelsea. Giroud played in all of France’s seven games en route to winning the 2018 World Cup, but did not score once.

In the 70′ of the opening game, France manager Didier Deschamps changed France’s tactics to optimize chances for Kylian Mbappe and, to a lesser extent, Antoine Griezmann. He switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, employing Giroud as a “false target man.” Instead of being the recipient of the final pass he was now the space-maker, making runs off the ball to stretch the opponents’ defences so Mbappe and Griezmann could isolate their defenders. He would use his body and positioning in the box to keep dribbling and shooting lanes open for the wingers. Obviously, this worked well for Les Bleus.

Giroud came back to Stamford Bridge and played a similar role for Eden Hazard for those scant moments they shared a pitch.

The purposeless build-up of Sarriball resulted in minimal useful service for Giroud, and necessitated the “get the ball to Hazard” approach to goal creation.

But in the absence of service into him, Giroud put himself at Hazard’s service, reprising his supportive role from the World Cup. Giroud could hold up play to bring Hazard in; or distort the defence by moving centrally when Hazard was out wide, creating space for Hazard to run into, before running towards the near post as Hazard came in centrally. This latter move forced the defence to choose one of two known threats: Eden Hazard with the ball on his feet or Olivier Giroud running towards the near post.

The Europa League was a different story, though. Whereas Hazard had three times as many minutes in the Premier League as Giroud, Giroud had three times as many minutes in the Europa League as Hazard.

Without Hazard on the pitch, Giroud had the responsibility to score goals himself and the freedom to do so.

This is not to say that he was self-sacrificially altruistic in the Premier League, any more than he was in the World Cup: he simply knew that his team had a better chance of scoring goals and winning games by creating space for Mbappe, Griezmann or Hazard than by looking for goals himself. Without Hazard, though, he became that preferred, productive option.

As a result, eight of Giroud’s 11 Europa League goals last season came when Eden Hazard was not on the pitch.

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Olivier Giroud now has an entire season of four competitions without Eden Hazard on the pitch with him. If he spends his time creating space for his wingers, he will be disappointed in the results. If he runs off the ball trying to pull defenders towards him, they will follow him knowing that he is the threat worth marking out of the play. He is obviously capable of scoring goals while tightly marked, facing the wrong way and with his body at nonsensical angles to itself, but that will only get Chelsea so far.

Chelsea need Olivier Giroud to be the impact scorer he was at Montpelier and Arsenal. They may need him to do it from the starting XI and not the bench, which will be a challenge unto himself for the never-exactly-fast 32-year old.

But more than anything else, they need Olivier Giroud to be selfish again, as all great goal-scorers are. Eden Hazard had a very selfish final season at Chelsea. It earned him 21 goals, a Europa League trophy and the criticism of his manager.

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Giroud could conceivably match that tally and will probably not win a European cup, but at least he will have his manager’s respect and approbation to go with that of the fans.