Eden Hazard is without a doubt one of the best players in the Premier League. He almost single-handedly drags Chelsea to a result multiple times a season. He did it against Atlético Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitan, conjuring chances out of nothing, and showing Juanfran that the only way to stop him is to foul him, all on the back of his first start on returning from an ankle fracture this summer.
Hazard is an excellent footballer, that much is true. But in his Chelsea career thus far he has taken his foot off the gas; he is not ruthless. He does not do the things which make people watch in awe often enough. It is time for him to show his true greatness.
Why Eden Hazard Can Reach Another Level
Operating mostly as a left-winger, Hazard began his Chelsea career in the free-flowing band of three in a 4-2-3-1. He, Oscar, and Juan Mata formed a formidable trio as Chelsea claimed the Europa League. Hazard scored nine goals and made eleven assists in the league that season, capped by two cup stunners. The first, a last gasp solo effort against Sparta Prague, saw the Belgian jink through two defenders before firing a left footed stunner into the roof of the goal. For the second, he squared up against Manchester United in the FA Cup, before deftly bending the ball into the back post. A picturesque goal.
The next season saw another step up from Chelsea’s talisman. Nine goals became 14, and he showed more of his ability to dominate games. With a stylish hat-trick against Newcastle and strong finishes against Liverpool and Tottenham, Hazard was gaining quite the reputation for himself.
The next season, Hazard became even more of a man for the big moments. When the lock needed to be picked, the Belgian was there. But he did not do it often enough. When the game was there to be killed off, Hazard took his foot off the gas, opting to keep the ball and run the clock down instead of going for the jugular.
A Central Role for a Central Figure
Antonio Conte pushed Chelsea into a 3-4-3 last season, and Hazard flourished on the left. He was able to come inside and combine with Diego Costa, while the thread of Pedro in behind offered him more space behind the opposition’s midfield. It was probably his best season in the Premier League, and at times it seemed like he would score every match.
Despite this, since joining from Lille in 2012, the Belgian has longed to play centrally. He was incredibly successful in France playing as a number nine, or slightly withdrawn from there. When Costa missed out, Hazard had some of his best performances at Chelsea in the same role.
Chelsea have adopted a 3-5-2 on three occasions this season. Away to Spurs, an unfit and unfamiliar Morata paired with Willian to lead the line; away to Atlético, a fully-fit Morata sat just in front of the talismanic Hazard. It was devastating, and may have been the best Champions League performance from Chelsea since 2012. That match was the barometer for where the Blues stood as a club. With a year outside of Europe, the caveat of only playing one match a week hung over the club. They did not just pass the test, they aced it.
Hazard was the main man. He looked confident, arrogant, like he knew he was the best player on the pitch. He was instantly more dangerous, receiving the ball centrally in pockets between Atleti‘s banks of four. He was free to drift left or right, drive at whomever he chose. In the first half, he combined to strike the post from distance in the right channel. Chelsea’s first spawned from play to spring Hazard on the left, before a wonderful delivery for a Morata header. If Hazard is going to play centrally, this might be the time he shines.
The obvious counter argument is that of the Manchester City match. Hazard was often found isolated and unable to get involved; but after a string of seven matches in 21 days and a tight midweek affair, a disappointment was to be expected. Considering City’s obvious excellence this season, it is no cause for concern.
The Clock is Ticking
It sounds almost outrageous to say, but Hazard, now 26, needs to ascend sooner rather than later. He does not have the physicality to maintain his peak for as long as others, nor does he have the ability to drop deeper and play in midfield. He is a world-class player, but he needs to kick on and give performances like the one in Madrid every week. The consistency, the ruthlessness, the goal involvement; he has to do it all.
Hazard gives the impression that any goal is possible, that no matter the result he might drag Chelsea back into the match, but if he wants to cement himself as the best at Chelsea, in the Premier League, and in Europe, it is time to elevate his level. He needs to stop being great, and start being the undisputed best.
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