For a long time, Eden Hazard was associated with a very specific attacking move. He would receive the ball in the shallow left position, push it towards the corner of the penalty box and a teammate, and then advance on to the return pass. Sometimes it would be a direct one-two, other times Hazard would be making a third-man run; whatever the case, it was a Chelsea staple.
It was also smart. Any time a player of Hazard’s ability starts to move, a defence has to react. Attending defenders needed to anticipate and respond and, as a worst case scenario, even if the move broke down or didn’t create an opportunity for Hazard himself, the chances were that a fracture would appear somewhere else for another Chelsea player to exploit.
Of course, it wasn’t the only way in which Hazard was used and his abilities have been applied in all sorts of ways over the past six years, but that particular phase – really, a pre-set move – was both highly effective and intertwined with the notion of what he was as a player.
The cost was felt in his reputation, though. Despite operating at an extraordinarily high level for most of the last half-decade, any notion that he is comparable with the true elite of the European game has always been treated as heresy. It’s in evidence now, in fact: bizarrely, Leo Messi’s most recent performance in England (against Tottenham at Wembley) was weaponised as a rebuttal to those claims. Some of that may have been Catalan sensitivity, Messi has always inspired a slightly hysterical fundamentalism, but it was still hard to explain.
Why not Hazard? Why are those who extol his virtues patted on the head and treated as Little Englanders? Messi and Ronaldo have created a category of excellence that only they inhabit – that’s unquestionably true – but the notion of Hazard as a successor shouldn’t be in any way ridiculous. Whatever the true reasoning, it’s hard to look beyond the imprisoning effects of Chelsea’s style. It’s the same perception which has, for a long time, dictated that he will one day need to leave the club in pursuit of individual recognition.
By his own admission, Real Madrid are attractive and, were they to make an acceptable offer, he would cheerfully move to Spain. Money, fame, status; if those are a player’s poisons, it’s hard to beat the Bernabeu. Nevertheless, if Chelsea’s trend of improvement under Maurizio Sarri continues and Hazard’s role in that system develops as it promises to, the argument supporting such a transfer would certainly weaken. Chelsea will never be able to offer him perfect weather and the kind of stage that he would enjoy in Madrid, but they are now building him a platform upon which he can show the full rainbow of his abilities.
That may sound like a odd thing to say given the standards he’s already reached in the Premier League, but there exists this suspicion that there is another level to Hazard which, because of this team’s past mechanics, Chelsea supporters are yet to see. Roman Abramovich has spent the last decade searching for the perfect aesthetic with which to frame his club’s success and that tallies with the notion that, at no point, has the side ever really been built to glorify its finest player. They’ve benefitted from him, won because of him, but – maybe – are yet to see him at the absolute extremes of his ability.
It’s early in the season and Chelsea have mainly faced only modest opposition, but there are still signs of that changing.
Sarri’s football is in its germinating stage. The chances are that, with time and the opening of a few transfer windows, the team will look very different. Neither Alvaro Morata nor Olivier Giroud is capable of providing a perfect solution at centre-forward, the requirement is really for someone more mobile, and at least one new centre-half is expected to arrive in due course. The loan of Matteo Kovacic also suggests that, long term, Sarri believes that an additional midfielder is necessary. As strong as Chelsea currently look, they remain unfinished and their manager’s style is yet to completely take root.
But then, consider how well Hazard is currently playing and imagine what standards he might reach once those conditions are properly in place. Consider also, not just the literal value of his contribution – his goals and assists – but the way he is playing and where. He looks so dangerous; he’s involved in so many of Chelsea’s attacking moves. That’s expected to a degree, because without a prolific forward Sarri needs Hazard to be productive, but that he has managed to coax such a high level of form from him so quickly – and under less than ideal circumstances – obviously bodes well.
Imagine what could develop, then, once the complimentary pieces are installed around Hazard. With Jorginho further attuned to English football and providing an ever better supply of possession into the attacking areas. Perhaps also with a forward who does possess the blend of abilities to dovetail with him effectively and present an even great challenge to a defence’s integrity. From being a side who won games in a narrow set of ways and in rather formulaic style, Chelsea are suddently playing with an ad libbed, freedom of attacking spirit which suits Hazard perfectly. It has him dancing all over the final-third but, crucially, with a backing cast who equip him in those areas and provide the security which underwrites that kind of freedom.
Irrespective of anything else, from a neutral’s perspective it’s fascinating: how good actually is he?
The argument for Madrid will always remain the same. They’re one of those clubs who will always, no matter the circumstances, offer something to an aspirational player. In this instance though, Hazard shouldn’t be fooled by the illustion created by Cristiano Ronaldo; he was a multiple Ballon d’Or winner because of who he was and how dedicated the conditions around him where to the framing of his greatness, not just because he was literally a Madrid player. Whether it’s acknoweldged or not, Ronaldo’s effect on LaLiga and the Champions League was also multiplied by a side which, for the duration of his stay, was bent entirely to his purpose.
It’s a side, also, which is reaching the end of its lifespan. Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are approaching the twilight of their peak and Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos are all in a similar position; the tenets of those three European Cups will soon have to be replaced. Football still operates in cycles and, in spite of their financial advantages, Real could be reaching the end of their imperial atage. At the very least, the transition between periods of great success is rarely instantaneous and there just aren’t enough world-class players available at any one time to defy that truism.
The appeal of inheriting Ronaldo’s role is obvious, but the reality of what that might entail is less clear. It’s assumed that Madrid’s current struggles will disappear eventually and that, if nothing else, the club will just be able to spend their way out of their current malaise. Perhaps, but at 27 and with – maybe – two or three years left of his prime, is that a gamble that Hazard would be wise to take?
Possibly not. Particularly so now that he is free of Antonio Conte’s rigidity and Jose Mourinho’s structure. And when, finally, he is being coached by someone who places such emphasis on the attacking side of the game and who, quite obviously, will design whatever plans he has for Chelsea around him.
As situations in football go, that’s fairly close to being optimal. It’s quite unexpected, but Eden Hazard no longer really has to leave for the sake of his long-term global legacy. He may still choose to do so, he may even just want to test himself in a different league, but the necessity of doing so is no longer so clear cut.