As Eden Hazard walked off the pitch in the 77th minute of Chelsea's 3-1 win over Newcastle on Saturday, there was a familiar feeling to the performance. In the time he was on the pitch, Hazard produced another superb display, becoming the focal point for the majority of his side's attacks and looking as dangerous as ever when in possession. He was rightly applauded off by all four sides of the ground, and yet despite his two goals, there was still a slight air of disappointment. Each time the one-time wonderkid from Lille puts in a performance like this, and especially when it comes with the added bonus of him getting on the scoresheet, fans and pundits alike clamour that this is the Hazard which needs to turn up more often if he ever wants to be on the level of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. But here's an idea ... how about we stop comparing him to the twice-in-a-lifetime talents?
The day Chelsea confirmed the addition of Hazard way back in the summer of 2012, there was a ton of expectation on the youngster's shoulders. People expected him to take the Premier League by storm, not just with his skills but also his goalscoring talent. But that’s just simply not the sort of player he is. Finding the back of the net has never been a main strength for him, though it also has not been the weakness it is so often painted as. During his time in London, he's averaged 16.5 goals per year in all competitions — not counting the tumultuous 2015-16 campaign which saw him struggle with injuries and seemingly fall out with his head coach, José Mourinho; it was a peculiar year for Hazard, one which has not been repeated since and may have even turned him into an even better player judging by his form since.
All the personal honours (PFA Player of the Year, PFA Young Player of the Year) and trophies (including two Premier League titles), have only served increase these expectations. At first glance it might be a compliment to be compared with two of the world's greatest ever players, but for Hazard it's often used as a stick to beat him with instead. While the two La Liga stalwarts can usually turn in 50-60 goal seasons, the chances are Hazard will never even reach that level, particularly if he keeps playing in England for the duration of his prime.
But those 50-60 goals aren’t just a product of circumstance. While there is an understanding that those sorts of goal-totals simply don’t happen outside of La Liga, both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have averaged roughly 1-in-2 for their respective national teams as well. Hazard, in contrast, has averaged 1-in-4 for Belgium. He is simply a different type of player, and he is thus utilized in a way that draws upon his actual strengths rather than some idealized, non-existent version of him.
When Hazard receives the ball, his options are usually either to turn into a two or three man defensive wall, or to lay it off to an approaching midfield teammate in hopes of a quick give-and-go. So much of the opposition's defensive schemes are centred around neutralising Hazard that he rarely has the opportunity to go one-on-one with his marker, let alone find many goalscoring opportunities. And it's because of his sensational dribbling abilities and low-centre of gravity that Chelsea's opponents find the need to outnumber him whenever he comes into possession. Against Liverpool last week, where he dominated the Reds' midfield, he was constantly double marked. Although Hazard is usually able to beat this aggressive press, either by drawing a foul or pulling off a quick turn or some other skillful move, he will then often find himself facing another wall of two or three defenders. The chance which fell to Danny Drinkwater in the first half at Anfield is another good example of this.
Antonio Conte, a man known for his high tactical IQ, tends to use his number 10 as either a winger to draw pressure out from Alvaro Morata in the six-yard-box or to have him roam just behind the forward in an attempt to open up the passing lanes for Cesc Fabregas. Hazard has too much versatility to be used as a complete striker, as having him move around just the oppostion's penalty box would make life easier for the defenders and the attack would become much more stagnant for Chelsea. It's happened often this year where a pass from Fabregas, sitting deep in his own half, is flicked on by Hazard quickly enough to turn and beat his man, with either Pedro, Willian or a third midfielder playing it back into space for his teammate. This sets Hazard off on his run, and with the wings being supported by Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, the opportunities arise for Morata to either run off the shoulder of the last line of defence or await the ensuing cross from Hazard's pass out wide. It looks to be the go-to move for Chelsea when the offense isn't clicking or the opposition are sitting too deep and need to be dragged out. Having Hazard pick up the ball in the middle of the pitch often helps with such a scenario.
Hazard wouldn't work as a complete striker — and the few times he’s been deployed as an out-and-out striker, it hasn’t really worked — in the same way that Cristiano Ronaldo has been used in his time at Madrid. Hazard’s strength, heading and finishing aren't on the same level as the former Manchester United prodigy’s. But that's not a problem for Hazard or Chelsea. He wasn't built to be a centre forward, and while Cristiano Ronaldo started off on the wing and slowly adjusted to becoming a full-time striker, his later days in Manchester saw him deployed as an inverted wing-forward as his finishing instincts became too obvious to ignore.
Hazard actually missed a couple of good chances against Newcastle, and though credit has to be given to Karl Darlow for pulling off two magnificent saves, most will have expected Hazard to finish those. Unfortunately, that's not the sort of player Hazard is. He's a reliable scorer but he's not an out-and-out finisher. And that's not necessarily a bad thing when you have the likes of Diego Costa or Morata playing alongside him. Chelsea have never needed Hazard to contribute twenty or thirty goals a year. Sure, it would be a bonus, but the team’s success isn’t predicated on that. What Chelsea have needed from Hazard are the brilliant overall performances like the one yesterday and like he has done many times so far this year and in his five-plus years at the club.
Thankfully, he has rarely disappointed with those expectations.