LONDON — Gianfranco Zola admitted that Maurizio Sarri is trying to find “common ground” with Eden Hazard about the best way to maximise the Belgian in Chelsea’s system.
Hazard has publicly bristled at being deployed as a false nine rather than a left winger at times by Sarri this season, and insisted he didn’t care about his head coach calling him “more of an individual player than a leader” after inspiring Chelsea to overcome Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semifinal on Thursday.
Sarri has justified playing Hazard centrally by saying it reduces his defensive responsibilities, and speaking in a news conference his assistant Zola said Chelsea’s head coach is still trying to find a balance between allowing his best player to express himself and making him work for the team.
“I was very much like Eden, a very instinctive player,” Zola said. “I liked to have the freedom to move around the pitch and find the spots where I could receive the ball and make the damage. I understand that and we try to give him this freedom, but we are also trying to be an organised team, defensively and offensively.
“Especially defensively, and that’s why we ask Eden sometimes to put himself about. I know it’s not his best quality and we understand he needs to be fresh when he receives the ball.
“There is no doubt we are on the same page, but we want to find a common ground where he can get the best out of himself and also the team can benefit from him, not only when he’s scoring goals, but also in the moments of the game when we need everybody to defend and everybody to press.
“But I have to be fair: Eden has been trying to do it. We are very demanding because we want to do it all the time, and I’m sure that we will find a good [balance].”
Hazard made a point of praising Olivier Giroud’s performance against Spurs while also expressing excitement at the imminent arrival of Gonzalo Higuain, and Zola added he understands why the Belgian prefers to play around a true No.9.
“It was very similar when I first came over here,” he added. “I had Mark Hughes and Luca Vialli, and when I could play off them it was much better for me. I used their physicality to get the spaces I wanted.
“They were fantastic for me, so I understand that for Eden. He has a very good understanding with Olivier Giroud that created a fantastic game [against Tottenham], and I’m sure he will have a good understanding also with Higuain.”
Chelsea are currently trying to convince Hazard to spurn serious interest from Real Madrid and sign a new long-term contract at Stamford Bridge. The Belgian has postponed a decision about his future until the end of the season, and there have been suggestions that Sarri’s public criticism could push his superstar winger in the direction of the Spanish capital next summer.
Zola, however, insists that all of Sarri’s words are aimed at getting the best out of Hazard.
“Maurizio said the potential is greater than the performances,” he explained. “He’s not saying he’s not happy with what Eden is doing, [but] he believes he can do much more for himself and for the team.
“This is how the situation stands and when Eden responds to all this with performances like [against Tottenham], we’re looking forward to seeing more and more of it. To play as well as he played all the time is impossible, but we need to get as close as possible.”