There’s a footballing sequence which will always be associated with Eden Hazard. He picks the ball up close to the left hand touchline, drives in field – perhaps past a couple of defenders, maybe via a one-two with a teammate – and then scores with precision and style. It’s representative of what a good player he is, of course, but also an overlooked dichotomy: Hazard may be a fabulous footballer, but the boundaries within which he operates are quite narrow – particularly in comparison to the company he keeps at the top of the game.
Consider Kevin de Bruyne, for instance, Manchester City’s fabulously versatile attacking-midfielder. He’s played a broad range of positions for his club and country, each time with distinction, and the result has been a broad, glittering showreel of goals and skills. The impression, perhaps, is of a superior, more rounded player – certainly one who is more entertaining than Hazard and more likely to make a game worth watching.
Obviously, that isn’t entirely fair. Maybe De Bruyne is the more gifted and intriguing of the two, but Chelsea’s role in creating that perception cannot be understated. For the duration of Hazard’s time at Stamford Bridge, their native tactical style has been restricting for him and the coaches he’s played under – particularly Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho – have pursued success through a rigid form of control. Regulars at Stamford Bridge will know, for instance, just how much time Conte spends on the touchline and how intolerant he tends to be of players who try to ad lib their way through games. Hazard has occasionally been flamboyant and it’s not uncommon to see him scythe his way up the field as part of a counter-attack, but his excellence is still contained to a certain degree.
The player’s future is assumed to be controlled by finance. Now nearing the end of his current contract, Chelsea recognise that it is no longer 2004 and that even Roman Abramovich’s wealth no longer offers them the same economic dominance. If Real Madrid are serious in their interest in Hazard, then they have the means to offer him a far higher basic wage. That will likely sting because, particularly for the modern generation of supporters who don’t know anything other than supremacy, it would be a shockingly unfamiliar situation. Nevertheless, it’s how the game works now and there are very few clubs – perhaps only two or three – who are safe from the vultures.
But the style point might also be relevant. The reliable accounts of Hazard’s personality all seemingly agree that he is not a player in thrall to his own ego; he is not Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo and doesn’t appear to crave individual recognition above all else. Nevertheless, for him to be celebrated as his talent deserves – to have access to the Ballon d’Or – he likely recognises that he would need to play in a different sort of system. For a team, perhaps, who exercise almost comedic dominance over their week-to-week opposition – like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain.
One of the reasons – one of the many reasons – why attacking players from those sides are typically afforded more recognition, is because the watching world gets to see the full rainbow of their abilities on a more regular basis. The superiority of their sides is generally such that they aren’t quite as incumbered by defensive responsibility and the imperatives surrounding work-rate and defensive responsibility aren’t nearly as restricting. It’s a better life for attacking players and it’s also one which lends itself to greater appreciation.
Perhaps it’s also one which comes with less punishment. Statistically, Hazard isn’t the most fouled player in England, but few would contest that he has to endure an almighty beating almost every time he takes the field. It’s a wonder, actually, that more of his career hasn’t been lost to injury or, at the least, his athleticism hasn’t been permanently curbed.
The other, more substantial obstacle for a player like Hazard is – quite obviously – that the summit of the game has been guarded fiercely by two individuals for almost a decade. For as long as Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo remain in their primes, they will be the sport’s pre-eminent force. However, at just twenty-seven Hazard must know that he will outlast both: Ronaldo is already no longer the athlete he once was and even Messi, who turns 31 next summer, will eventually be neutered by time’s passing. When that point arrives, there will be a gap at the top of the game – one which Hazard theoretically has the ability to fill.
But he’ll need to be in position to make that ascent when the time is right and that’s likely to be more of an instructive influence on his future than is generally acknowledged.