Eden Hazard is ready to make his return to the Chelsea starting lineup tonight, almost four months after breaking his ankle, and ahead this momentous occasion, he has been talking once again about the improvements he’s made and the things he’s learned in the last fifteen months under Antonio Conte.
Last season, in addition to talking about the tactical understandings he’s gained, Hazard was one of the first Chelsea players to emphasize the ‘automatisms’ that Conte likes to instill in his players — the trained movements that rely less on individual invention and creativity and more on precise execution, timing, and pattern recognition. It’s a form of muscle memory almost, things players can choose to do on the pitch almost with their eyes closed.
"We work a lot. It's not always easy in training, there are a lot of hours of training, but it bears fruit on the pitch. We play well, we won last year. You can see that that's the key to success: work.
"There's a lot of tactics. It's not always nice as a forward as you have to run, defend and everything, but at least at the weekend, you know exactly what to do, you can even close your eyes and play. That's good."
The obvious drawback of these sorts of “set” plays is that the opposition can sniff them out just as well and force Chelsea into either giving the ball away or relying on less practiced patterns. We saw Arsenal do this very well on Sunday, for example, and Chelsea were at a loss on how to respond until Tiemoué Bakayoko and Eden Hazard entered the fray and injected some individual creativity into the proceedings.
Conte has talked about not wanting to limit such inventiveness despite his preference for practiced movements, and surely the proper application of the two approaches is the key to consistent positive results. Hazard’s free role last year was a direct result of these sorts of tactical adjustments and attentions to detail, for example, which Eden has used to elevate his own game as well.
"You have to [improve]. Even after a week I think I had progressed with him. But I think he's shown not just at Chelsea but also at Juve that he's a good coach and I think he has some good years ahead of him."
-Eden Hazard; source: SFR Sport via ESPN FC
So say we all.