How long Eden Hazard’s deployment as a false nine will last is hard to say. For the moment, it’s a role mandated by Chelsea’s attacking issues: Alvaro Morata remains mired in professional crisis and, while clearly a valuable reserve, Olivier Giroud is the wrong type of forward to occupy the position on a permanent basis.
Game-by-game, though, Hazard is make a compelling case to be that full-time diamond point. On Wednesday night, at Vicarage Road, he made a further statement with a destructive performance which showed him at his shimmering best. One goal scored and one penalty won and converted was an impressive enough headline, but it’s only the precís of a display which pulsed with steady influence. It was flecked with the usual Hazard’s excellence – the hip swivel which flummoxed Ben Foster for the first goal was a moment of swaggering class – but it was also striking just how adept he looked in the role generally and how often his teammates profited from his use of the ball.
At any given time in world football, there are few players who carry the ball as dynamically as Hazard does and Chelsea have found tremendous value in positioning those attributes at the top of their formation. When the opportunity to do so has arrived in the past, it’s often been less than convincing; while he has still contributed, it’s tended to be in a disconnected and peripheral way. With neat symmetry, Hazard’s performance on Wednesday night was dramatically different to the one he gave on his previous visit to Vicarage Road, back in February 2018. He scored a wonderful goal that night, curling in from 25 yards, but he was a fleeting presence in what ultimately became a heavy Chelsea loss.
Of course, this false nine role carries an opportunity cost: moving him comes at the expense of his contribution in his more familiar, shallow left position. But, with the club’s football now aimed towards Maurizio Sarri’s more progressive, south-to-north style, it could rationally be argued that the greatest effect to be mined from Hazard – currently, at least – is from his impact in those quick breaks. Chelsea’s aim is to move the ball quickly and vertically. When they get that right – when the first possession phases are accurate and they slip through their opponent’s initial press – Hazard is clearly whom they’d prefer to have the ball at his feet. No Chelsea player goes beyond more players, nobody is more adept at creating goal-scoring opportunities from half-chances.
Watford certainly struggled to cope. Javi Gracia has created a balanced team with a highly physical back-four at its base and a pair of technically adept, but obdurate midfielders at its heart. And yet Hazard had his way with them, finding space all across the full width of the pitch and infiltrating the final-third seemingly at will. He had 55 touches of the ball at Vicarage Road and only ten of those came in his own half. A further ten came in the Watford penalty box which, for a player still learning the position, was certainly encouraging.
He is not a natural 9, that should be clear. His natural tendency is to dwell on the ball and to draw defenders towards him and, almost for the entire duration of his time in England, he’s been encouraged to do just that. Now, his effectiveness relies on the timing of his passes, the speed of his decisions and how he uses the space he himself creates. He has to become an undiluted version of himself and that will involve a learning curve – asking a player to change his habits always does. On Wednesday night, he wasn’t at his most efficient – particularly in the first-half, when two raids deep into Watford territory might have resulted in goals had he found the right ball to break apart a cracking defence.
For now, though, there’s much to be enthused by. Of course, Chelsea may yet choose to restock the forward position in the coming transfer windows. Similarly, with Real Madrid holding a reported interest in Hazard and the player unlikely to resist an offer should it come his way, this may prove to be a very short-term solution indeed.
But should neither of those scenarios come to pass, then Sarri may yet have the perfect emblem for his style of play. Hazard is one of the Premier League’s apex predators, meaning he’s treated with natural hesitancy by any opponent he faces. Translated into this new situation – in which he often finds himself isolated against centre-halves – that’s potentially of great relevance. Defenders back off him, trying to create a margin of error for themselves. Additionally, the attention he draws in the middle of the pitch inevitably creates opportunities for other players and, while standard defensive procedure has always been to double-mark him in his traditional position, using the touchline as a further defender, allowing him to roam removes that option.
So this is interesting: what to do with Eden Hazard? The comparison it’s impossible to avoid is, of course, with Dries Mertens. Prior to playing for Sarri, Mertens didn’t quite belong at the top of the game. He was a good player, but wasn’t among the European elite. Post-Sarri, that changed: his range of finishing, his close control, his low centre of gravity and range of movement made him the ultimate component for that team, ideally suited to their patterns of play and to the kind of chances they typical created.
In effect, Hazard is Mertens. But better. Much, much better. The logic is obvious: if Sarri was able to multiply that level of talent into something truly significant, imagine what – with time – he might be able to achieve with a truly rare footballer.