Gonzalo Higuain’s expected move to Chelsea, which will likely be an initial loan containing a clause to make the deal permanent, will attract some criticism. Not unjustly, because there’s a reason why Higuain now plays for AC Milan instead of Juventus and, at 31, he is already on his career’s downslope. He’s always provoked broader complaints, too. His performances under pressure don’t bear much scrutiny and his body shape, which has noticeably thickened over the past few years, make him an easy and justifiable target.
But much of that is irrelevant, at least in reference to Chelsea’s current needs. They are the only club in the Premier League’s top-six who are currently playing regularly without a proper forward (Tottenham’s injury issues excepted) and it’s hard to imagine how they could secure a more decorated player on such short notice. The finances for Higuain will almost certainly be decadent, yes, but the potential cost of missing out on Champions League football for another year is far more concerning. Higuain is not the player he was and he comes with certain asterisks, but he still makes Maurizio Sarri’s side better and so, for now, that’s where the focus should lie.
Stylistically, there’s much to like. The Argentinian is not and never has been the most mobile player, but he remains an excellent one-touch finisher and that should, in theory, marry neatly with the kind of chances Chelsea aim to create. Additionally, one of the obstacles to Sarri’s way of playing so far has been the lack of proper movement from whomever operates as the starting 9; Higuain should remedy that issue, too, creating chances for himself in the process but also opening the necessary fractures in an opposing defence.
But perhaps the most significant issue is a subtle one. What of Eden Hazard? The Belgian may be a very effective false 9, performing admirably in the position this season, but it is not his preferred role. He wants to playing in his familiar left-sided position and, clearly, Higuain’s arrival should allow that to happen. It’s also worth considering, of course, what Hazard’s reaction might be to the prospect of another season of Europa League football. With his contractual situation being what is (expires June 2020) and his reciprocated attraction to Real Madrid still burning, Chelsea must ensure that they are best placed to keep him in the summer. Clearly, being inside the Champions League group stage puts them in a stronger negotiating position.
Higuain helps. Hazard has always depended to a degree on the strength of his relationship with a centre-forward – he and Diego Costa were a wonderful combination at times – and there’s plenty of reason to believe in the profitability of an axis containing Higuain too. Certainly, it’s easy to imagine them exchanging passes on the edge of the box and Hazard, as he loves to do, knifing past the defence and onto a return ball.
But there will be an additional value to Hazard in seeing another elite player come through the door at Stamford Bridge. He is a genuinely world-class footballer, clearly one of the very best in his position, and his reaction to watching Chelsea’s recruitment over the past eighteen months can hardly have been positive. Would someone like him have relished the opportunity of playing alongside Danny Drinkwater or Ross Barkley? At this stage of his career, with his mind drifting towards legacy, most likely not. But Higuain? Clearly that’s different.
So this works. It’s a lunge and it’s being necessitated by all sorts of other failures, but while Chelsea aren’t exactly getting a bargain, they are still making a dramatic improvement which will manifest in all sorts of ways.