For a normal human, being declared the best footballer in England would be career-defining, the culmination of years of hard work on the pitch. The ceiling, in other words, of one’s footballing ability.
Eden Hazard is not a normal human being.
Hazard has three full seasons under his belt since arriving from Lille as the most heralded young player in Europe, and what’s most astonishing about his rise is how thoroughly he’s left his early days behind him. The 24-year-old has matured from an inconsistent, tantalising trickster into a genuine force of nature, diligent off the ball and completely unstoppable on it. And he keeps getting better.
The arguments over whether or not Jose Mourinho’s focus on improving the defensive side of Hazard’s game would hobble him going forward now seem utterly perverse. Although still prone to spells of inattentiveness, the Belgian has embraced his more prosaic duties with an enthusiasm that’s somehow spilled over to his attacking play. A younger and freer Hazard tended to drift in and out of matches; the older, more focused one has been honed to a keen edge.
During award season, the standard rationale for favouring Hazard for Player of the Year was that he’d been the most consistent out of all the plausible candidates. The likes of Sergio Agüero, Cesc Fàbregas and Alexis Sanchez, we were told, had all been too streaky to stand up to the winger. While true, this sold him short. Hazard at his best - and he was at his best for most of the year - blew his competitors away.
Hazard dominates matches in a way that others simply cannot manage. When he’s on the ball, defenders are drawn to him like a swarm of moths to a light, and he generally proves just as fatal. Nobody else invites challenges like he does, and nor is anyone better at ploughing through whatever the opposition has to offer.
When Hazard is running with the ball, he terrifies the opposition, annihilating their overall structure as they scramble in vain for a way to deal with him. Although his goal and assist numbers don’t quite measure up to his raw talent, the way he disrupts defences opens up gaps for Chelsea’s other attackers to hit, making everyone else better in the process. That he scores so frequently despite the absurd amount of attention he draws is a testament to just how good he is.
But his game isn’t simply about raw efficacy. Hazard in full flow is a joy to watch, a stupefying whirlwind of movement and trickery. He sees spaces before anyone else does, and hits them while his markers are still fumbling around in the dark. His control is so sharp that he can and does line up multiple targets at once, skipping between defenders like a sentient pinball ricocheting through a field of impotent bumpers. He’s not only the best player in the Premier League, he’s the most exciting as well.
What’s left? Hazard has conquered England - he was easily the standout player on what was easily the country’s standout side, picking up both individual and team trophies - but aside from Chelsea’s bizarre and mostly forgettable run through the Europa League in his first season, he’s yet to taste European glory. Having left his domestic opposition sprawled in the grass, he’ll have to look to the continent for new challenges.
The next steps are obvious, although they represent a far greater challenge than anything that’s come before. There are only two players left in the world clearly beyond Hazard’s level: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are serial scorers and serial champions, and if Hazard wants to insert his name into their hallowed ranks he needs to vastly up his production while leading the Blues in their quest for a second European Cup.
His occasional selflessness - less charitably his occasional timidity in front of goal - might end up getting in the way of the first target. Where a Messi or a Ronaldo might shoot, trusting in their finishing ability, Hazard puts his faith in his teammates instead. In some ways, his inclination to put their glory ahead of his own is admirable. In other ways, it’s infuriating. He’s easily Chelsea’s most dangerous player, and his habit of acting otherwise when in shooting positions is bad for both the team and his own numbers.
It’s sometimes difficult to imagine a world in which Hazard is markedly improved, because he already plays like he’s a gift from the footballing heavens, one that none of us has done near enough to deserve. But if his goal is the Ballon d’Or, he’s going to have to unseat two of the best players in the history of the game, and that means raising his level to completely new heights.
His goal against Barcelona during Chelsea’s preseason tour of the United States was a marker of just what he can do when he’s on, but the sight of Hazard slaloming through a hoard of flabbergasted defences before putting the ball away needs to become the norm rather than a rare gem. His hoped-for peers, after all, each have enormous collections of highlight-reel-worthy goals.
Hazard may never make it to those heights, of course, and few could blame him if he doesn’t. That he’s nearing the final climb at all is already a mark of greatness, and he’s at a level that most professionals would kill to even glimpse. But Hazard’s answered every question asked of him so far, and few would be foolish enough to completely rule out the possibility of him raising his game yet again.
After signing a new five-year contract with the Blues in February, we know that if Hazard does reach that peak, it’ll be in SW6. Even if he doesn’t, we’re extremely lucky to have him around.
We Ain't Got No History's 2015/16 season preview was edited by Joe Tweeds and designed by Graham MacAree. If you've enjoyed the work of the authors who generously donated their time to this project, please share with your friends and consider supporting The Chelsea Foundation as a way of saying thank you.Credits