Watching Eden Hazard tear one of Europe’s great defensive sides to pieces last night was simply stunning. It was the European performance his talent had threatened to deliver for so long, wrapped in a neat little Belgian bow. Free from the constraints placed on him by José Mourinho, Antonio Conte placed Hazard at the centre of his team and watched the chaos unfold. In truth, Atlético Madrid could not cope with Hazard’s trickery, his acceleration, his intelligence or his unique ability to make top level players look a bit Sunday League. Like many before them, they resorted to simply kicking him at every opportunity: it did not work. The scary prospect comes after Chelsea get comfortable in this system.
Looking at Hazard’s performance yesterday, it placed him in a position where many have felt he is at his strongest. Undoubtedly, playing Hazard as a winger is incredibly effective. However, against elite level opponents, it is easy for the Belgian to become isolated. Sides who combine a great level of talent with superior organisation are hard for anyone to breakdown. We have struggled to get Hazard into games as left winger or inside forward. It is difficult to envisage a scenario where he shines as brightly when asked to be an auxiliary left-back. In this new 3-5-2 shape, Hazard becomes central to everything Chelsea does.
For perspective, rarely have Real Madrid or Barcelona put on such a commanding performance at Atlético Madrid’s home ground. Diego Simeone, magnanimous in defeat, summed it up perfectly: “[Chelsea] were better than us. Tactically and physically”. Aside from the reshaped backline, there are three additional pieces that really allowed Hazard to operate at this superstar level. With Tiémoué Bakayoko and N’Golo Kanté in midfield, Hazard’s days of needing to help the slightly less mobile Nemanja Matić and Cesc Fàbregas are over. Our midfield is now athletic, powerful, intelligent and capable of delivering robust box-to-box performances.
Pundits reducing Bakayoko and Kanté to athletes will be reeling at how effortlessly the pair controlled midfield with the ball. Clearly both are absolute specimens, but the one-touch football that created the winning goal only happens with wonderfully talented footballers, not marathon runners or outside centres (Bakayoko could double up for the French rugby team). Watching them stop Atlético’s counterattacks before they had even crossed the halfway line was frankly mindboggling. Yet, the skill and progressive passing on display does not sit comfortably alongside this crass stereotype.
If the new midfield tandem completely overwhelmed Atlético Madrid, it is the introduction of Álvaro Morata that is revolutionising the way Chelsea can build play and attack. The Spaniard has settled quickly. He should be commended for the change in mentality since the Arsenal match. He is never going to be the rampaging bull that Diego Costa was; but he is developing a competitive streak within his game that suggests he is not going to be pushed around. How many people literally body check Diego Godín to the ground? It was not malicious, but it spoke volumes about Morata’s willingness to incorporate that side of the game into his own. Frank Lampard mentioned that it was one of his favourite things about Morata’s game during his punditry on BT Sport. This combination of silkiness and grit is very reminiscent of Peter Osgood: the King of Stamford Bridge could play the game as stylish as any centre forward but would give it back as and when required.
Morata’s technical ability marries perfectly with how Hazard plays the game. The quick 1-2s, the flicks, the tricks, the vision and the understanding was unlike anything we have seen at this level. Costa had his moments, but he was more of a finisher of moves. By no means was this a bad thing, Costa was a scorer of important goals as opposed to a purveyor of stepovers. Morata, on the other hand, can seemingly do both. Equally adept at coming short, retaining possession or intricately circulating the ball under pressure, we have already seen he can be an exquisite finisher. Just the mere placement of Hazard near Morata troubled one of the most well-organised sides in world football. It was a game where Hazard felt menacing every time he touched the ball and he was unquestionably the best player on the pitch.
I have often felt that Hazard comes alive when deployed centrally – his whole demeanour changes, filled with a swagger and arrogance that befits his talent level. It is like the central role consumes him, flitting and darting around the pitch, enjoying the havoc he creates. The combination of this shape and the new personnel really does allow him to dictate the game in a complete fashion. To put things into perspective, Hazard made as many key passes last night (those are passes that lead to an attempt on goal) as Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Marco Verratti and Dani Alves combined against Bayern Munich. The ball to Morata being the pick of the bunch. Given the freedom to roam anywhere, Hazard ends up on the left flank and creates half a yard of space before whipping a pinpoint cross towards Morata who deftly glances home. It was a beautiful piece of play that encapsulated everything good about his performance.
This position makes Hazard the point guard of the Chelsea attack. He treats the pitch like a canvas, composing his masterpiece with deft brush strokes and moments of brilliance. Much like a point guard, everything runs through him from every angle on the pitch. His touch map reflecting the sheer omnipresence of his attacking output. We may see a new trend if Conte’s impact on the Premier League continues. How many teams now play a variation of his title winning formation? The next evolution may well be this 3-5-2, focussed around a supremely gifted individual to play this pseudo point guard role. It finally puts the Belgian in a position where he can influence every single facet of play. Orchestrating every attacking ploy with his movement, dribbling, passing and intelligence. He can come deep, he can run in behind, drift to either flank, sit in pockets of space or ghost into half-spaces: it was a playmaking performance of substance and panache.
Throughout his career, Hazard has played roughly 59 games as a number 10 or withdrawn forward and has twenty-four goals and twenty-six assists. In this new system, where he has the keys to the kingdom, I think that level of production may increase. Both Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand asked why on earth you would want to give him defensive responsibilities when he can play like that? Speaking with Ali Maxwell (who might have the best @ on twitter and is a highly recommended follow → @TheMakeleleRole), the similarities to Kyrie Irving are apparent: “the otherworldly dribbling ability and close control of the ball defines both of them, punctuated by a low centre of gravity. With Hazard, has there ever been a defender capable of defending him 1-on-1? I have not seen one. Same with Irving, there is no defender that can cope with him on his own”. Even “the way that they ‘playmaker’ is predicated on their absurd individual dribbling ability”.
We often see Hazard characterised as a gifted dribbler. It is this type of assessment that really downplays a lot of his supreme playmaking talents. Perhaps his primary undervalued trait is his passing ability. It is something I never hear mentioned as one of Hazard’s traits. However, when Ted Knutson of StatsBomb dropped an article quantifying passing ability I took notice. I would advise reading the article for an understanding of the metric, but in short I have copied the four general tenets below:
- Long passes are harder to complete than short ones
- Vertical passes, especially in the opposition half, are harder to complete than most horizontal ones, though this rule gets a bit squishy around the box.
- Passes from outside areas to central areas are harder to complete
- Passes as a whole become far more difficult to complete as you approach the goal.
Perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not) the Premier League’s best wide player when it comes to passing ability? Eden Hazard. Given that one of Knutson’s takeaways was that “the average difficulty of passes attempted and completed by Messi is insane” it is perhaps poignant to note that Eden Hazard is very close to him in terms of the data points. Hazard normally creates 90-100 chances per season without taking set-pieces. Kevin De Bruyne creates marginally more while taking corners and free-kicks. De Bruyne is often positioned as a world class creator, while Hazard is not necessarily put on the same pedestal; he probably should be. Hazard’s ability to play dangerous passes is incredibly rare and while the raw assists numbers may not reflect this, he is one of the best passers in world football. Surrounding him with more talent is only going to see this increase.
When Hazard first joined Chelsea, I wrote something about how he could potentially become a modern-day Gianfranco Zola. While the Premier League is a much different beast to what it was in the late 1990s, Hazard certainly feels like the embodiment of what the number twenty-five meant to me growing up. That feeling of anticipation I get when Hazard picks the ball up one-on-one with a defender is the same feeling I had when Zola used to twist defenders inside out regularly. Everything from the low centre of gravity to the incredible ability to control the ball under immense pressure is the same. Hazard might have a better haircut though…
We now have a set of personnel and a system that can extract the very best of Hazard on the grandest stage: the personnel point being the most salient. It is not just the implementation of a 3-5-2 that is crucial, but the fact we have Kanté, Bakayoko and Morata to make it flow. Willian or Pedro will not produce a performance like Hazard’s just because we have set people out on a pitch in a 3-5-2 formation. It will be interesting to see whether this tactic is something Conte persists with against weaker opponents and even more interesting once Fàbregas gets used to his role at the base of the triangle.
There is an argument to be made that Hazard is already the most talented player to put on a Chelsea shirt. How he is seen amongst the pantheon of Chelsea greats will largely be determined by his performances over the next few years. If we build the team around him, as I believe we should, then we are looking at returning to the top table of European football. He is a unique talent – capable of practically anything on a football pitch and while he regularly delivers in big games, the level of dominance he exhibited last night is something he should strive to match every game. Perhaps now the side is tailored to his strengths and the key supporting cast are a stylistic match, this is the sort of Hazard performance we can expect to see regularly.
He may never be a thirty-goal a season forward, but what he provides instead of that is consistent creative brilliance. We have seen a glimpse of the future with Hazard adopting this point guard/nine-and-a-half role. This special ability to drop immensely deep and create off his own dribble is something we should enjoy watching; I doubt there are many around who can do it as well. Will it be something we see replicated at Manchester City this weekend? The scope it provides to play on the front-foot and to counterattack is a delicious prospect against City’s gung-ho brand of football. I suspect this change of style might correlate with the emergence of a “new Chelsea” and in which case it will be Eden Hazard leading the charge as the Belgian so often does.