Antonio Conte surprised many, yours truly included, with his strong lineup selection for Saturday’s FA Cup fifth round tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers. While the defense and central midfield were rotated, up front, the likes of Costa and Hazard retained their places. Unfortunately, they were perhaps the two worst players out there on Saturday, particularly in the first half. And not just bad, but essentially uninvolved — at around the 30-minute mark, Costa and Hazard combined had fewer touches than Asmir Begović in the Chelsea goal.
While Costa eventually got his goal, which absolves him to a certain extent, Hazard remained off the scoresheet and once again went the whole day without taking a single shot. And that first half was some of the worst play we’ve ever seen from Hazard — even the highlights look bad when most of what we see are giveaways, mis-hit passes, and aimless flicks.
Chelsea finished the game stronger, as has become the norm under Conte, but Hazard’s performance remains a worry. He was roundly panned afterwards by both fans and pundits, and while immediate reaction can often go overboard, it was perhaps warranted in this case. He was the lowest-rated Chelsea starter by WhoScored’s mystery algorithm and is likely to be the bottom of the pile in our player ratings as well, flawed as they may be. In fact, even before this game, we could see that Hazard has performed at or below the team average four out of the last five matches. That may be acceptable for other players, but we should have higher standards for Eden.
(In another trivial measure, in over 50 pictures from Getty Images available to us from this game, there are none that feature Eden Hazard, not even in the background! Anonymous.)
So, another subpar showing, though a stronger second half than first, which isn’t the worst trend. Should we be concerned? Or this is just a natural dip in form that all players experience at one time or another? Does Hazard need a rest? Is he carrying another minor injury? He remains the league’s most fouled player, but he’s now tied with Zaha for the “lead” in that category after having a massive lead earlier in the season. Chances are that’s not because he’s receiving any new protection from the referees; he’s just shying away from contact.
Hazard has just one goal in 2017 — albeit a rather magnificent one — and his shots per game have once again dwindled. Increased shot-taking was one of the “little things” that really seemed to improve Hazard’s game earlier this season, but that average has regressed from 3.3 shots per-90 through November to a more familiar 2.4. He had taken 31 shots in the first 11 Premier League games of the season (through the Everton match). He’s taken just 20 in the 13 since.
Just a couple weeks ago, Hazard was talking about how he’s a more “complete” player than he ever was before. That’s an easy argument to make after the Arsenal match, and Hazard does tend to be a big-game player if nothing else, but it’s a bit harder to make the same argument after the Wolves game, or the Burnley game, or the Hull City game, etc.
So what’s the solution, assuming that there is a genuine problem? There are at least two competing solutions, two schools of thought: we can either give him a rest and let him find form that way, or we can continue playing him and let him play his way back into form. Performances like that one against Arsenal would indicate that this is just a temporary blip and not a permanent worry, and given that he was playing against Wolves, perhaps Conte believes more in the latter method than the former. Either way, we’re going to need a fully functioning Hazard for the run-in to the season (and the FA Cup campaign), so let’s solve this situation sooner rather than later, shall we?