World Cup scouting report: Belgium’s Dries Mertens shows what Eden Hazard could become under Maurizio Sarri

Sarri transformed Mertens from talented winger into ruthless goalscorer at Napoli and his Belgium team-mate could benefit in the same way if the Italian manager takes over at Stamford Bridge

Lawrence Ostlere
Tuesday 26 June 2018 14:44
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Belgium World Cup profile

It is safe to presume Eden Hazard has already asked Dries Mertens the questions. Who is Maurizio Sarri? What is he like to play for? And it is safe to presume the answers were emphatic.

Mertens is a huge admirer of Sarri, his manager at Napoli over the past three years who is on the verge of becoming Hazard’s new coach at Chelsea. “Sarri taught me football,” Mertens said last year. “He is a coach I really like, well-prepared and even scientific in the way he analyses games.

“The thing I love the most about his style of football is the way he organises the phases when we are off the ball and structures the pressure we put on opponents when they’ve got the ball at their feet. It feels like he has already played the game out in his head and on the field you have an extra man.”

That pressure that Mertens talks about means when he or one of his fellow scurriers pinches the ball from an opponent, they are usually high up the pitch with team-mates in close support. Sarri has deployed Mertens in a false nine role, using the 31-year-old’s intelligent nipping runs to interchange with the even yappier Lorenzo Insigne, transforming the Belgian from buzzing winger into a ruthless finisher with 34 goals in 2016-17 and 22 goals in 2017-18.

Hazard has played well under Antonio Conte, particularly in the 2016-17 title-winning campaign playing behind Diego Costa, but it is tempting to wonder what new qualities a coach like Sarri could bring. With a more central role in a super-high press, Hazard’s defensive responsibilities would all fall far higher up the pitch and would involve stealing the ball in dangerous areas – a task he might be more inclined to take on than the more traditional tracking back under Jose Mourinho, for example.

Dries Mertens opened the scoring with a fine volley

Against Panama the front trio – Mertens, Hazard and Romelu Lukaku – regularly interchanged positions, albeit with rather rougher seams on show than Napoli’s smooth moves, and while Mertens scored a fine finish and Lukaku grabbed two, Hazard was not so composed in front of goal. He has had prolific spells at Stamford Bridge and it is not hard to imagine those being harnessed full-time in a free-flowing team such as Napoli’s over the past three years.

Sarri’s diehard commitment to passing out from the back makes Pep Guardiola look thoroughly primitive. Many players could benefit from his arrival at Chelsea but as Hazard and Mertens flitted in and out of their attacking positions, the possibilities for Chelsea’s No 10 seemed particularly tantalising.

On the World Cup’s official live blog on Monday, Hazard was introduced as a player comparable to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, needing a standout tournament to back up his claim. But the truth is he needs two or three seasons in succession showing his talents, something he’s not yet been able to string together, and Sarri’s arrival might just be the answer.

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