In a summer that has seen Chelsea revolutionise the makeup of the squad, Eden Hazard has become something of an afterthought. On the back of an admittedly poor World Cup, where Hazard said that "the criticism that came [his] way was justified", the 23-year-old has plenty to prove this coming season. That said, the arrival of Cesc Fàbregas will alleviate some of the creative burden that weighed heavily upon the Belgian’s shoulders, and, moreover, the presence of Diego Costa should open the pitch up in the final third and add a finishing touch to Hazard’s inventive work.
Eden Hazard finds himself returning to a team structure that is conducive to both personal success and trophies. The Belgian has limitless potential that should see him climb into the upper echelons of European football. His focus must now be on the next few years with Chelsea. A move to Paris Saint-Germain seems pointless given the uncompetitive nature of the league. Similarly Real Madrid and Barcelona are stacked at Hazard’s position. Everything he wants to achieve can become a reality at Stamford Bridge.
Hazard is a sumptuous footballer. On his day, of which there are many, few in world football combine his low centre of gravity, pace and end product. However, to really establish himself at the very top consistency must be found. I admit to being somewhat critical here, but that is purely because Hazard can be the difference-maker in us winning a European Cup (again) and a league title. He is that good.
The fact that Hazard has been able to produce such a level of play with a relatively modest supporting cast is a testament to his ability. However, with little help around him we became painfully predictable. The game plan of "get it to Hazard" was easily countered. Opponents began to sit deeper each week, crowding Hazard out of the game. As a result, we struggled. Having no natural left-back, poor midfield play and a non-existent striker meant that unless Hazard did something unbelievable we had little chance of scoring.
Azpilicueta, for all his defensive capability, was not a willing (perhaps through instruction) overlapper, nor was his end product worrying enough for opponents to take him seriously as an attacking threat. Nemanja Matić was a superb addition, but was asked to do much without an able passer next to him. Matić will be a fantastic weapon this season because his ability on the ball will compliment someone like Cesc Fàbregas. Frank Lampard was not the Lampard of ten years ago. Ramires may never become technically good enough to dictate play against a defensive side. John Obi Mikel is merely a robust holding player and Marco van Ginkel was injured.
The forward line, tasked not only with scoring goals but stretching play, was abject all season. You could possibly excuse a low scoring centre-forward if he was pulling defenders everywhere and creating space; this was not the case with Chelsea. Our forward play was so poor that opposition sides would gladly let their centre-back play one-on-one with them. In the modern game that is unheard of for a side at our level. I would not leave Agüero, Van Persie or Suárez one-on-one with Cahill or Terry. That fear factor was completely absent from Chelsea's centre forwards.
The primary reason for Hazard’s dip in form was how defences began to tailor the way they played him. At times he was effectively squaring off against four players. Opponents consistently double-teamed him with their right-back and right winger, and once the flow of the game had been established the right sided centre-back would creep over and occupy the space that Hazard was likely to look for if he could escape the immediate two man press. On top of that, and most importantly, was that teams would essentially drop one of their defensive midfielders into Hazard’s cut-back lane.
The above, which comes from Squawka, is a representation of Crystal Palace’s average positions against us in a game many will want to forget. You can clearly see the left centre-back is effectively playing very centrally, allowing the right sided centre-back to push out to stop Hazard cutting back inside. The 6, 3 and 13 worked tirelessly to contain Hazard, with the 8 dropping back frequently.
Despite starting out wide, Hazard was at his most dangerous cutting inside his full-back and driving into central channels. You can see that almost half of the goal scoring chances Hazard created last season came from the area just outside the 18-yard box. Very few of Hazard’s chances created come from him driving to the by-line and cutting the ball back through the area.
When Hazard skips inside he was increasingly met with a holding midfielder and needed to look back inside to Ramires or Matić. The backward pass signifies the breakdown of the attack, and as this gets repeated a frustrating lack of tempo seeps into our play. Getting Hazard one-on-one with his full-back was almost impossible, and as such there was no creativity in the side. Oscar’s form tailed off and in terms of final third output Willian needs to find more this season.
Where does that leave Hazard? Is he on the cusp of greatness? Or will he continue to flash world class potential in patches? In my opinion, this should be the season that Hazard makes the leap to becoming a consistent threat. Every world class star has needed a supporting cast to transition him from being a very good footballer into the realm of the elite. Hazard arguably now has it.
By his own standards, Hazard had a disappointing World Cup. In a way, Belgium mirrored Chelsea’s ponderous build-up, lackadaisical midfield, unnatural full-backs and incomplete centre-forward play. In principle everything should be different for Hazard now that he's returned to the club. Chelsea have bought in players who will not only stretch the field but also quicken the pedestrian circulation of possession. It will no longer simply be a case of opponents hedging their bets on containing Hazard to stop Chelsea playing well.
Natural full-back width will be a huge factor in the development of Hazard’s game. He has not had the luxury of playing with Ashley Cole at his peak and Azpilicueta was clearly a defensive choice last season. Even if Azpilicueta did overlap, his natural tendency to cut back onto his right foot, the same as Hazard, meant that the channel in behind the right-back was rarely attacked with pace and quality. Azpilicueta created a meagre three chances from the wide advanced channel: by comparison Filipe Luis created 14. In the second it takes to cut the ball back onto your favoured foot or look for a pass Premier League defences will have reorganised. These tiny delays can kill momentum.
The option and outlet that Luis will bring to the side cannot be overstated. Teams in La Liga (and us in the Champions League) had to plan to deal with Luis’ overlapping runs and contribution in attacking phases. It is a completely different prospect for an opposing full-back knowing that the space in behind him is going to be attacked by someone who can cause problems. The mentality of simply being content to push Eden Hazard inside will no longer be effective in shutting Chelsea down. Hazard is good enough to continually find Luis and the Brazilian is good enough to capitalise.
While Luis brings a sense of balance to our left flank our prospective midfield should add much needed gusto. Matić was a breath of fresh air last season. His vision and range of passing was an obvious asset, but often wasted on those ahead of him. You feel, as an aside, that Matić is going to enjoy finding Diego Costa a lot this season. Combining Matić with Fàbregas is where things get interesting for Chelsea. Fàbregas is every inch a Premier League footballer, despite his Catalan roots and he understands Premier League tempo. His imagination and ability to find passes that do not even appear to be on when watching from afar is frankly ludicrous.
In terms of Hazard this combination should act as a catalyst for consistently dominant performances. Part of Hazard’s issues last year was that he frequently received the ball too late or in the midst of a static move. If you factor in the added threat of Luis overlapping and Diego Costa up top there should be less of a concentration on stopping Hazard. last season, our midfield was treated with little respect. Sides chose not to press, knowing that we were not technical or incisive enough in possession to hurt teams who stand off. That now changes.
With Matić and Fàbregas operating in roles where they can arrow passes quickly into space or to feet, the dynamic of our team completely changes. We move from being physically capable with Ramires and Luiz, to being technically dominant. I like how we can still switch to a more physically imposing side when required and I hope van Ginkel continues to develop his all-round game. If required, Mikel can slot in. Against lesser sides where we struggled last season, we now have multiple ways to dictate the game from deep.
While it is dangerous to formulate any concrete opinions about how a player is going to pan out during pre-season, we do have the benefit of hindsight with Fàbregas. His ability to continually pick out wide players in space with both chipped and scything distribution bodes well. There will be a time when it is not Mohamed Salah running onto one of those passes, but Eden Hazard. This movement is going to be rewarded, and we will regularly see him in dangerous pockets of space. Seeing Hazard play on the half-turn and being able to twist and drive at the heart of the opposition is going to be exciting.
Factoring in the link-up with Filipe Luis and the incisive passing he is likely to receive will elevate Hazard to another level. However, it might just be the addition of Diego Costa that truly sends Hazard into exalted company. We can talk forever about getting the ball to Hazard quicker or the space created by a natural left-back, but it is the situation ahead of the ball which can provide him the greatest comfort. In a side that lacked fluidity and a central focal point, Hazard created 92 chances last season. He made that many opportunities when he was the entire focus for the opposition defence. That's a goal scoring chance every 30 minutes in the league, the highest rate in the country. Yet our strikers barely registered any goals.
Costa may not hit the heights of a 30 goal season in his debut campaign at Chelsea. However, he brings a presence to our front line that has been sorely lacking since Didier Drogba’s departure. The intricacies of forward play are complex, but as a lone striker at its most basic level you need to be a goal threat. Juxtaposing Costa with Torres (or any of last year’s crop) reveals everything about how opposing defences will be challenged this season. Where Torres struggled to command any attention at all from Crystal Palace, Costa was bullying and occupying entire back fours while on his way to winning La Liga.
Having even a competent forward would shift attention away from Hazard, but the fact Costa is a genuinely high calibre addition is salivating. Costa thrives on finding space where there appears to be none. His movement, as we have seen in pre-season, is exceptionally good. He pulls wide, runs in behind and comes deep adroitly and this has allowed the team to look very fluent in this early stage of pre-season. Costa is the man who should convert Hazard’s passes into goals. Where Eden drives infield and picks up the ball in pockets of space, he now has an intelligent option ahead of him.
Costa’s impact will be psychological as well as physical. Mourinho has already spoken of how impressed the senior players have been with his performance levels in training. In terms of Hazard this is a game changer. I noted several times over the course of last season that when Hazard made breaks, defences barely went with the movement of our striker. If teams stick to focussing on Hazard then Costa is going to have a field day peeling in behind all season. Conversely, if teams start to realise Costa is the threat then Hazard can more easily find his way towards a favourable one-on-one.
Things are going to be vastly different for Hazard this season. He will find himself receiving a better quality of pass, being in pockets of space more regularly and not being double-teamed with such ease. What he does with this added modicum of time and space is going to be key. I will go so far as saying that if Hazard maximises the opportunities he is likely to receive, he could be the outstanding player in the Premier League. More importantly he could deliver that elusive league title.
Decision making and confidence will be crucial this year. At times there Hazard hesitates to work the opportunity to shoot for himself. Gareth Bale played eight fewer league games than Hazard, but still had 15 more shots. Marco Reus played six fewer games than Hazard, yet produced 37 more shots. Arjen Robben produced two more shots than Hazard in 12 fewer games. Naturally they are enabled by having superior movement and passing in their sides, but the "eyeball test" on Hazard is one that suggests he passes up far too many shooting opportunities.
But now circumstances have conspired wonderfully for Chelsea to unlock Eden Hazard’s full potential. The Belgian just needs to back himself more when the opportunity presents itself. The perceived top attacking players in the world have one common trait: a complete unwavering confidence in their ability to hit the target from any position. Hazard is a very tidy finisher, but it is probably the single biggest area he needs to focus on.
The centrality of his shots is something that consistent post-training work would amend. Thierry Henry, whose name is only being mentioned for wisdom's sake, spoke about having specific pictures of finishes from every part of the area. A top class finisher should be able to replicate the same finish from the same situation within a degree of accuracy repeatedly. Whether that is where Hazard opens his body and looks to elevate the ball into the corner or he adopts a more Hasselbaink-esque instep drive: having that consistent picture of what he is trying to do eliminates the hesitancy. He did notably scuff some decent opportunities last year where he side-footed the ball directly down the middle.
Ultimately the Premier League could be Hazard’s playground this season. He is going to be placed in a team that should allow him to succeed. Whether that is through Luis’ support, newly found tempo from midfield or by having Diego Costa ahead of him, Hazard must grow into the player he is destined to become. One exceptional season full of consistent performances would place Hazard on a path to greatness at Chelsea. He may already be the most naturally talented player the club has ever had. What we as fans want to see now is that natural talent manifested in the form of a world class attacking talent. We may finally be in a position to see the best of Hazard -- and considering just how well he has played up to this point that must be a terrifying prospect for opposition fans.