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Gonzalo Higuain to Chelsea: Smart Deal, Sizeable Gamble or Both?

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJanuary 24, 2019

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 28:  Gonzalo Higuain of AC Milan celebrates his goal during the Serie A match between AC Milan and UC Sampdoria at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 28, 2018 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
B/R

It might sound strange to say—and looks even stranger typed out—but Chelsea's acquisition of Gonzalo Higuain, even on a loan basis, simultaneously feels like a super-smart deal and a sizeable gamble.

The Argentinian striker joined the club from Juventus on Wednesday, having cut short his loan stint with AC Milan to embark on another one in west London, as Maurizio Sarri tries desperately to address the glaring striker issue that has placed a ceiling over what the Blues have been able to achieve this season.

Once the go-ahead to strike the deal was given, Chelsea moved fast to get Higuain registered as quickly as possible. The Telegraph's Matt Law reported the club tried (and failed) to do so in time for him to feature in the Carabao Cup semi-final on Thursday—a clear response to the side's clear weakness in the No. 9 position right now.

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Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud have struggled to score at the rate expected, with both underperforming their expected goals tally, per Understat.com. It has prompted Sarri to move Eden Hazard up front (and Morata to be exiled to Atletico Madrid), but that has only slowed the Belgium international down, leading to four straight subpar showings.

It made signing a striker in January a must, and to acquire one who has worked for Sarri before—and therefore would be familiar with many of the concepts that will now be placed before him—is a sensible move.

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Granovskaia on Higuain: “Gonzalo was our number one target in this transfer window & arrives with a proven record at the highest level. He has previously worked with Maurizio to great effect & is familiar with how the coach likes to play” #cfc

On paper, it should work. As FourFourTwo's Adam Digby explained, Sarri and Higuain went hand-in-hand before, and they should do so again:

I think it's a perfect fit. Sarri has a very specific style and expects players to do certain jobs within it. His striker is there purely to score goals.

The issue I believe he's had at Chelsea so far is that his players don't fit that; Giroud is great at holding the ball up, Morata thrives on the counter attack, but Higuain is a finisher and I wouldn't be surprised if the whole team looks better once he slots in.”

However, that presumes Higuain is still, well, the same old Higuain. The one who scored 36 goals in 35 Serie A starts the season he worked with Sarri; the one who reached the elite striking tier and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski; the one who wouldn't think twice before lashing home from a seemingly impossible angle.

TOPSHOT - Napoli's Argentinian-French forward Gonzalo Higuain celebrates after scoring his third goal during the Italian Serie A football match SSC Napoli vs Frosinone Calcio on May 14 2016 at the San Paolo stadium in Naples.
Napoli won the match 4-0. / A
CARLO HERMANN/Getty Images

Is he still that player? Chelsea are gambling on it being the case, and there's zero guarantee that he rediscovers the form that saw him earn a €90 million move to Juventus as recently as 2016. He arrives at Stamford Bridge in a very different state to the one he resembled upon swapping Naples for Turin back then.

That summer, he was coming off a 36-goal league season, having showcased a blend of predatory instinct and an affection for the spectacular finish up front for the Partenopei. He reserved a spot in the Serie A record books for most goals in a season with a final-day hat-trick, the strike that sealed it being a ludicrous overhead, swivelling effort.

It was yet another brilliant campaign, and he's added more on top of it since then. Wherever he's been, from River Plate to Juventus, via Real Madrid, Napoli and the Argentina national team, he's scored a bucketload of goalsexcept for in this most recent half-season with Milan.

Big chances, big stages—they've always been a problem for Higuain. In his home country, he's nicknamed "pecho congelado" ("frozen chest" in Spanish, an especially harsh adaptation of Argentina's term for "bottler," per Ed Malyon of The Independent) due to the number of one-on-ones, penalties and tap-ins he's somehow contrived to mess up over the years.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 26:  Gonzalo Higuain #9 of Argentina reacts after missing a scoring chance against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match at MetLife Stadium on June 26, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Mike S
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

But simply scoring goals? Against your also-ran sides and league fodder? That's never been an issue, and it shows in his record of notching double figures (and often 20-plus) in 10 of his last 11 full European seasons.

In Milan, things changed. He managed just six from 15 starts, underperforming his xG by 1.02 goals in a spell that might warrant its own book at one point in the future. Topsy-turvy doesn't come close to covering it. 

He started brilliantly—assisting the winner against AS Roma in Milan's second match of the season and then embarking on a run of five straight games with a goal—and saw four of his first six shots on target on the league fly in.

B/R Football @brfootball

—38 goals —42 games Gonzalo Higuain was incredible under Maurizio Sarri in 2015/16 🎯 (🎥 U.S. only) https://t.co/UeRnrofve0

"But then came the derby (against Inter Milan)," Mohammad Sharara of @MilanEye tells B/R. "Milan were awful, Higuain was isolated, he had zero shots on target and completed just 10 passes."

It was the first thread to unravel, and more soon followed. Affected badly by injuries to key midfielders, namely Giacomo Bonaventura and Lucas Biglia, his form dipped. Then came the Juventus match—a chance to prove his parent club wrong for loaning him out—and it went spectacularly, almost incomprehensibly wrong.

A poor performance was capped by a missed penalty and a red card—shown for allowing his temper to spill over in a heated exchange with the referee. What could have been a glorious night for the Argentinian devolved into one more ignominious than anything else.

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 31:  Gonzalo Higuain of AC Milan reacts after missing a chance of goal during the serie A match between AC Milan and Genoa CFC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 31, 2018 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

"It was a real turning point," Sharara said. "After the Sampdoria game (on October 28) it took 10 more games for him to score, it came against SPAL. He was booed by the fans during the first half of that game." The San Siro didn't see him again.

Higuain arrives at Stamford Bridge in the sort of shape we've never seen him in before. His age-old flaws are presumably there, but a fresher, more recent dent in the armour accompanies them.

With that in mind, it's arguable there's no better place for the 31-year-old to be than west London right now, under the stewardship of a manager who has coaxed record-breaking form out of him. But the realignment of Sarri and Higuain does not guarantee success. He needs to be full of confidence—rehabilitated even—all while adjusting to a new league and new team-mates.

Chelsea's Italian head coach Maurizio Sarri gestures on the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Cheslea at the Emirates Stadium in London on January 19, 2019. (Photo by Ian KINGTON / IKIMAGES / AFP) / RESTRICTED
IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

It's possible Higuain needs some time. Footballers aren't really afforded such a luxury, with fans expecting and demanding from the start—particularly from a big name—and often forgetting the human element of the game, but the Argentinian might need it.

The problem is Chelsea aren't necessarily in a position to offer it.

Saturday's loss to Arsenal shrunk the gap between sixth and fourth in the Premier League to just three points. Manchester United are rising fast, re-energised by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, making it a legitimate three-horse race for the top four, and on current form you'd back them to nab it.

It's tight, it's tense, and it has heaped the pressure on Chelsea to get this decision right.

Football's a team game, but it's fair to say a fair chunk of the Blues' top-four hopes have now been invested inHiguain. If he fires, they'll make it; if he doesn't, they face the damaging prospect of finishing outside the top four for a second straight season.

Sarri has some work to do, because the Higuain who was booed by the San Siro in December represents a shadow of the Higuain Stamford Bridge needs.

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All statistics via WhoScored.com.

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