Gonzalo Higuain’s first Premier League appearance at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea could hardly have gone any better.
The 31-year-old scored two well-taken goals as Chelsea recovered from the midweek humiliation at Bournemouth to beat Huddersfield 5-0 at Stamford Bridge. But it wasn’t just the Argentine’s goals that will have impressed Maurizio Sarri and the Chelsea fans.
After a slow first 15 minutes, in which a visibly chilly Higuain slowly warmed up, the striker linked superbly with Eden Hazard, playing multiple one-twos that bode well for the future.
His touch outside the box was mixed – sometimes clever, sometimes wayward – but Higuain’s darting runs and sudden changes of tempo exemplified why he is well suited to Sarri-ball.
We went to Stamford Bridge to give a forensic account of Higuain’s home debut. Here’s what we found out:
Throughout the first 70 minutes Hazard, in magnificent form, looked to link up with Higuain whenever possible; it was a lot like watching Hazard and Olivier Giroud together, with the Belgian drifting in from the left and immediately playing a no-look pass towards his team-mate.
Hazard has always tended to drift infield from the left wing, but he notably performs this move more frequently when he trusts the striker.
It’s a good sign for Chelsea fans, then, that the two men so often exchanged passes (21 times to be exact), Higuain touching it into Hazard’s path after receiving it with his back to goal.
48 seconds: Hazard’s cute pass finds Higuain, who shows a lovely first touch to take it away from the defender, only to misplace a simple 15-yard pass. It’s a move that sums up Higuain’s match: flashes of quality, but slightly off the pace.
13 minutes: Hazard glances the ball around the corner on the half-turn to Higuain near the edge of the area. The Argentine shows good strength to hold off Terrance Kongolo and lay the ball back for Hazard, whose shot is blocked for a corner.
41 minutes: Another clever one-two, this time the other way around, opens up a bit of space for Higuain, but he turns right only to find no support from Willian… and the ball is lost.
48 minutes: Cesar Azpilicueta chips a clearance into the centre circle and Higuain rises brilliantly to glance a header out to Hazard on the left. The Belgian strides forward, rides two challenges, and creates a half-chance for Ross Barkley.
It’s the only header Higuain challenges for all game.
70 minutes: The best one-two of the match: Hazard, on the right, waits for a runner and Higuain suddenly darts 15 yards across the pitch to make himself available. The Belgian slips the ball into feet and Higuain’s control, then around-the-corner pass, is perfect. Hazard has time and space for a shot but decides the angle is too tight.
Interesting that Eden Hazard is already linking up more with Gonzalo Higuain than he did with Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata. Could be just what Chelsea needed. pic.twitter.com/pSKYlOL0by
— Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) February 2, 2019
A notable improvement on both Giroud and Alvaro Morata, Higuain’s ability to suddenly dart into space – turning a defender or arriving late in the box – is the sort of intelligent movement that creates Sarri’s quick vertical counters (with plenty of one-twos). It’s a vital cog for Sarri-ball to function.
Most of these qualities faded after the first half hour or so, which is understandable considering Higuain is still recovering his fitness.
10: Jorginho clips a ball over the top of the Huddersfield defence and Higuain is onto it sharply, watching the ball drop over his shoulder and lashing a volley against a defender.
The ball just couldn’t come down quickly enough, but when the initial pass was made Higuain reacted considerably faster than the Huddersfield back line.
16: GOAL: Chelsea stretch the Huddersfield defence left and right, applying pressure, but the goal still comes out of nowhere.
A clever pass by N’Golo Kante suddenly puts Higuain one-on-one from a tight angle. His run, behind both Huddersfield centre-backs, is outstanding; the movement is too quick to track.
It is a perfect example of what makes a top striker: seemingly harmless, then a sudden change of gear. Higuain fires the ball high into the net from a tight angle.
20: Marcus Alonso cuts a low cross in from the left and Higuain connects with his toe, shooting wide at the near post. What’s clever here is the lateness of the Argentine’s run from the edge of the area, again highlighting the change of tempo he brings to the club.
30: Chelsea launch a neat, one-touch, genuine Sarri-ball counter-attack from a Huddersfield corner – and it’s Higuain who gets it going. The striker takes a calm touch inside his own area and, rather than hoof it clear, pokes a nice through ball for Willian to launch the breakaway.
Sarri will have appreciated this subtle action just as much as Higuain’s goal.
33: A carbon copy of the goal, Higuain makes a diagonal run into the area to latch onto Azpilicueta’s pass. This time he is tracked by a Huddersfield defender and the shot is blocked.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 2, 2019
There was a lot of intriguing Giroud-like play outside the area from Higuain, notably when using his strength to block a defender, offering a free run for Barkley or Hazard without ever touching the ball.
However, aside from his second goal (and a couple of neat spreads of play) there was plenty left to be desired from the Argentine.
The crowd groaned loudly in the second half when, for the fifth or sixth time, Higuain misplaced a fairly simple pass.
17: As Chelsea win the ball unexpectedly deep in the Huddersfield half, Higuain’s no-look pass from the left-hand edge of the D finds Kante in space. It is the most intelligent pass of the game so far, and should have led to a goal.
21: For the third time already, Higuain gets the ball with his back to goal but struggles to turn, instead slowing the move down. Twice his final pass has gone astray.
40: A sharp set of passes from Chelsea releases Kante through the middle for a two-on-two alongside Higuain, but the Argentine makes the wrong run, lumbering slowly in an arc to the right when the centre was free.
Eventually the ball breaks to him, but a sloppy low cross with the outside of his right foot is easily blocked. Higuain then fouls the defender when attempting to recover.
45+3: Another two-on-two develops, this time with Hazard, and Higuain’s run to the right is the correct one. However, after collecting the ball he decides to cut inside and is quickly shut down.
69: GOAL: After several times receiving the ball with his back to goal from Barkley, only to slow the game down by wriggling backwards and playing a simple pass, this time Higuain progresses the attack.
He takes a neat touch under pressure and lays an inviting pass into the left flank, then holds his position on the edge of the box. The ball finds its way back to Higuain, who lashes a shot into the far corner.
80: Without Hazard on the pitch, Higuain starts receiving low, vertical passes from Barkley – but this one, as with the last two, doesn’t lead to anything as Higuain passes straight to a Huddersfield player.
By Alex Keble