Finding logic in resurgence of Eden Hazard and emergence of Raheem Sterling

We’re only three games into the EPL season and already at the first international break, but a few teams and players are already leaving their mark on the current season. Sure, there’s the age old adages such as Arsenal refusing to spend and Liverpool doing the old Jekyll and Hyde trick, but some new story lines have already crept up as well. This season however is like no other. For one, we’re coming off an unprecedented win by an underdog of gargantuan proportion. For two, the manager talent pool is probably at the highest we’ve seen it in a long time. For three, the highest priced player is playing in the EPL for the first time in many many year. This season is a cracker.

With United, City and Chelsea all switching managers (not to mention Everton, Southampton and a few other clubs), it’s no wonder that some may take a little while to adjust. The United renaissance is somewhat of an anomaly, and even they needed 92 minutes and a miracle to get past Hull this weekend (Hull is for real, just in case anyone was still wondering). In London, Chelsea are struggling to consistently dominate games the way their talent dictates and on the other side of Manchester, City’s consistency graph resembles the build of a particularly terrifying roller coaster under the constant tinkling of Pep Guardiola. In both cases however, either manager has fond a way to unlock some of their transcendent talent.

Throughout last season, Eden Hazard looked a shell of his former self. Two seasons ago, he dazzled with 14 goals, 59% shot accuracy, 87% pass completion 90 key passes and 9 assists. All of those numbers dipped, most notably goals scored (4) and key passes + assists (63 and 3). You obviously can’t assign all the blame to the Belgian, as Matic, the defensive cornerstone covering the back four wasn’t operating quite as well. Tactically, Mourinho preferred Eden to drop deeper and do more covering, like he does with a lot of his wingers, before springing him forward. A role that he neither prefers to his offensive facilitator duties, nor he is well suited for with his smaller frame and exuberant pace.

In his role with Belgium, we saw flashes of what could have been occasionally, but not quite what we would see at Chelsea. With the insertion of Katne, the Chelsea manager has allowed his winger to stay up higher and receive the ball in more dangerous spaces, just check out this move against Burnley. He doesn’t have to drop deep to get the ball and can afford to rush at the defense, putting them on their heels, a situation where he is at his best. Already, he is on pace in attempts to outperform his last-year self (4.7 shots vs. 1.2 shots per game).

Let your best offensive player play offence seems like a simple offensive adjustment, much like playing LeBron James if you’re Tyrone Lue, but in the Mourniho system, everyone requires to track back. Starting Fabregas next to Matic meant that wings would have to drop back more to cover for a weaker defensive mid in Cesc, increasing their workload. Conte has opted for running the line up of Kante and Matic together. Kante wins about 2.7 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game, and while Fabregas has won 2.8 tackles last season, his interception rate has been a 0.6, which is a drop down from the Frenchman.

With both midfielders fulfilling the “holding” role, Chelsea have effectively played a 6–4 line-up this year, with 6 players having the task of holding Helm’s Deep while the attacking four simply have to drop in to receive the ball and spring forth (the exact thing Hazard has done on that sensational solo effort). It’s a system that frees up the creativity of Chelsea’s best offensive assets and it’s up front human battering ram that is Diego Costa. A simple adjustment that has effectively revitalized one of it’s best players.

More curious however has been the emergence of Raheem Sterling this year. After his transition from being a big fish in a Liverpool sized pond of diluted talent to an overpopulated City squad, things weren’t quite as good for the England international. Marooned on the wing more often than not with little freedom to drift into the middle or produce he got caught behind in rotation, never really getting the opportunity to shine.

In his first year with City his match rating dropped by almost .50 as did his overall stats. Noticeably, due to the lack of starts (only 8) his production also dipped from 7 goals and 7 assists on 2.4 shots per game with 68 key pass to 6 goals 2 assists on 1.7 shots per game and only 33 key passes. Simply put, Sterling was not in a position to score or set up his team.

In Guardiola’s more fluid system, the front three are encouraged to weave more, freeing up space and dragging defenders of balance while cutting across each other to make passing lanes for the midfield to thread the needle into. It’s a way more complicated system but one that is tailor made for someone of Sterling’s pace, especially if he’s running off the most lethal striker in the EPL. With defenders focused heavily on Aguero’s movement, Raheem can cut across the lane at will, occupying pockets of space the Argentine leaves behind. He’s already netted two goals and one assist while shooting closer to his Liverpool days (2.3 shots per game) and providing a variety of key passes.

This takes a lot of intelligence, which Sterling has in spades. Just look at the way he occupies space just in behind Aguero’s defense-vacuuming run into space. That is the benefit of playing in a Pep system that rewards clever runs into space. The cool finish in the end just highlights Sterling’s quality.

He was at his best at Liverpool when allowed to fill in the gaps left by Sturringe and Suarez, finding opportunities where they came before bursting into open space to exploit the defense with his pace. Just look at the way he recognizes his man leaving him in the open and quickly exploits it with a run to end up on the end of an inch perfect delivery. The finish on the end of that is pure confidence of a man in form.

Pep’s free motion system is perfect for Sterling and allows him to migrate across the field, reading the front line and mirroring their movements on a string. He has always been a deft reader of the game, which is why stapling him to the wing limited both his pace and his productivity. Under new management, he is calmly coming into his own, given the freedom to roam where need be. Much like with Hazard, a tactical change across the pitch has highlighted Sterling’s best qualities as City leads the charge for another EPL title.

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