Ahead of the big lunchtime happy meal of Chelsea vs. Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Arsenal legend and roving Sky Sports interviewer Thierry Henry sat down with fellow Francophone Eden Hazard for a little tête-à-tête about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Football, that is.
Sky Sports have released a couple teasers and the one you see above is the rather more interesting one, as Hazard talks about tactics and learning things under Antonio Conte. A lot of what he says is surprising, especially given that a) Hazard has been a professional footballer for almost a decade and b) he’s worked with renowned coaches such as Rudi Garcia at Lille and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. No slouches in the tactical department, at least as reputation would have it.
And yet, as Hazard reveals, it is only now, under Antonio Conte, that he finally understands how football isn’t just about what you do with the ball, but about what you do without the ball, about movement, about creating space, about knowing where your teammates are going to be and, in turn, where they are expecting you to be at all times.
“We know that to create movement I have to not even get the ball, but to create movement and space for others. I think now I understand that football is not only with the ball at my feet. It's good to get the ball at my feet but sometimes I need to go deep, to go at the goal."
-Eden Hazard; source: Sky via ESPN
Perhaps “understand” is the key word. Other coaches might have told Eden similar things, but it’s only clicked for him now, finally, in his mid-20s, especially as the game might not be coming to him perhaps as easily or as naturally as it used to — or allowed to come to him as easily, which, evidenced by often he’s fouled, is probably true. We’re also reminded of Andrea Pirlo’s famous quotes about Conte’s words “crashing through the doors of your mind” and making you see things that you hadn’t seen before.
That said, Hazard does reveal that tactical coaching under Mourinho was surprisingly almost non-existent. Given other players’ constant emphasis on Conte’s tactical sessions (as well as just the pure physical fitness drills), Hazard’s words probably aren’t too far from the truth at all.
"In tactics and training we do more with Conte. We work a lot of tactical positions and we know exactly what we have to do on the pitch, where I have to go and where the defenders have to go."
"We know exactly what to do. With Mourinho, he put in a system but we didn't work lots. We know what to do because we play football, but maybe the automatisms were a little bit different."
"With Mourinho, Nemanja Matic was behind me in the season when we won the title and sometimes I stayed in front and Matic did the job. With Conte it's different. I close more inside because Marcos Alonso is there as a wing-back. I just need to be ready to counter-attack if we get the ball."
-Eden Hazard; Source: Sky Sports
Sure, some of this has to do with the fixture list and the general lack of midweek action for Chelsea this season that has allowed Conte extra time to drill the players both physically and tactically. Winning has taken care of the rest, re-building the mentality and confidence of the squad that was so spectacularly lost after the title win 18 months ago.
Hazard’s game is still built on instinct and improvised skill (as he reveals in the video below) but those are qualities that lend themselves greatly to inconsistent returns. The idea with Conte’s tactical drills is then to add some baseline consistency, so even if he’s not contributing directly on the scoresheet, he’s winning free kicks, helping in transition and creating space for others.
Granted, Hazard has had a couple poor(er) games lately, probably in-part thanks to a minor injury, but even against Liverpool there were plenty of positive contributions, including a couple free kicks won (one of which led to Chelsea’s only goal) and even a defensive tackle inside our own penalty area.
That said, let’s have a bit better (or a bit more, to be more accurate) against Arsenal, shall we?