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Player Focus: Eden Hazard

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Player Focus: Eden Hazard

 

Eden Hazard is standing at the penalty spot, his hands on his hips. It's 0-0 in the 35th minute. The Chelsea No.17 had just tried to give the Nordsjælland goalkeeper Jesper Hansen the 'Baggio' eyes, looking intently at one corner before aiming a shot at the other. 

 

He had also maybe heard from Petr Cech that right-footed penalty takers tend to go to the goalkeeper's right, so why not look that way and go the other instead. Except Hansen was wise to it, diving to his left and pushing the penalty away. As he did so, Hazard clenched his fists and looked to the night's sky in anguish. 

 

Minutes earlier Nicolai Stokholm had missed a penalty at the other end. Perhaps it'd had an effect. For missing had just got very real and maybe it was catching. 

 

Hazard has certainly come down with something over the last couple of months. And if it weren't for all the other goings-on at Chelsea, from the Clattenburg case to Roberto Di Matteo's dismissal and the unpopular decision to replace him with Rafa Benitez amid the expectation that he might be the only man capable of reawakening the world class striker lying dormant within Fernando Torres, then maybe, just maybe Hazard's form would have come under the microscope more.

 

Because after setting the Premier League alight more or less immediately following his £35m move from Lille, it has faltered. In the beginning, he looked like picking up where he'd left off in France, where he had scored 20 goals and laid on 16 assists in the league alone last season. It was a remarkable individual achievement.  Only one other player in Europes top five leagues managed to combine tallies of 15 or more for both goals and assists in the 2011/12 campaign, and that was Lionel Messi. 

 

On Hazard's Premier League debut against Wigan, he set up Branislav Ivanovic and won a penalty for Frank Lampard. At home to Reading, he put in another Man of the Match performance, drawing a penalty again and laying on another couple of goals in arguably his best showing in a Chelsea shirt thus far. Then against Newcastle came his first goal - a penalty that he cooly converted - but what really sticks in the mind was that wonderful back-heel to tee up Torres.

 

Up until that point, Hazard had been involved in 87.5% of Chelsea's goals in the Premier League, assisting 4, scoring one and winning two converted penalties out of eight. One Sunday paper asked: "Could Hazard eclipse Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona as the Premier League's best foreign import?" Finally, it seemed, Chelsea had found a playmaker to rival Gianfranco Zola. "Gianfranco was a wonderful talent," Di Matteo claimed, "an artist I would say. Eden might become an artist as well."

 

Player Focus: Eden Hazard

 

He was running at people with a sense of abandon and supreme confidence, so often getting the better of his man. In August, Hazard was making 3 dribbles per game in the Premier League with a 60% success rate. Since September, however, he has generally found things that little bit more difficult. For instance, his dribbles per game have fallen to 1.25 per match at a success rate of just 38%. 

 

To some extent, that's natural. Opponents have come to understand that Hazard represents one of Chelsea's strengths and that he needs closer attention. They've also discovered that he might be one of their weaknesses too because he has, on occasion, offered so little protection and defensive cover to his left-back. 

 

Manchester United found this out in late October, scoring twice down Hazard's side and focusing 46% of their attacks down the right flank. Shakhtar followed suit at Stamford Bridge by concentrating 45% of their attacks in that area and while they lost 3-2 - in part because of an absence of luck and the mistakes of their goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov - their game plan was spot on.

 

It would be unfair to make Hazard the scapegoat for Chelsea's problems. Some have asked: what if he had opened the scoring away to Juventus after Oscar, following a mazy run, played him through on goal in the ninth minute? 

 

People have fixated on that chance, even though Hazard later created one just as good for Juan Mata only for his attempt to be saved. Would things really have been different? In hindsight the writing was already on the wall for Di Matteo. 

 

Still, with the exception of his role in the 4-1 win against Norwich on October 6, his part in the 4-2 victory over Tottenham and his Capital One Cup cameo against United, his performances have, in general, underwhelmed. 

 

From the defeat to Juventus two weeks ago up until Wednesday night's visit of Nordsjælland, his WhoScored average rating over his past four games was 6.71. That of course coincided with a change of manager and an alteration in the team's style to a more solid and defensively organised outfit. But Benitez quite rightly observed earlier this week that Hazard had been struggling before his arrival too.  

 

"Hazard can play in three positions and he has great talent," he said. "I know [Lille manager] Rudi Garcia so I have information and I know he is a great player but he has to adapt also to the tempo of the Premier League, it is not the same way to play [as in France]...

 

"At Lille he knew he was the key player and the way he was playing was with this feeling - 'I am the best player and I will do what I want to do and it will be right'. Here you come to the maximum level in the Premier League and Champions League. You have to be always at your best and sometimes you cannot make the difference. 

 

"It is something that he will see and learn from and he is doing well, but he can still do better because he is a great player." 

 

To his credit, Hazard didn't let his penalty miss define his performance against Nordsjælland on Wednesday night. David Luiz helped take his mind off it; making amends by scoring from the spot to give Chelsea a 1-0 lead just three minutes later. It unburdened Hazard and from then onwards he put on his best display for a while. 

 

Torres was a beneficiary of his work down the left, as Hazard laid on an assist - his first in eight games - for Chelsea's fourth goal. He also deserved another, as he set up Juan Mata for their fifth, who followed up an earlier shot that Hansen had saved. It was a very good individual performance. Then again that should be expected given the calibre of the opposition and the fact Nordsjælland had nothing but pride to play for. 

 

Benitez will be hoping Hazard can build on that showing away to Sunderland this weekend and recapture the sort of swagger he had at the start of the campaign. Still, the issue of whether all three No.10s can realistically play together as they did under Di Matteo remains under discussion. 

 

"In a game in which you can be in possession [Chelsea had 59% of the ball against Nordsjælland], you can use them all," Benitez explained. "If it is a game [that] you have to manage because the opposition are physically strong [like in the 3-1 defeat to West Ham] then you may have [to take] another approach, but they can play together because they are very good players."

 

It's a conundrum for Benitez because each of his three No.10s have different strengths and weaknesses out of possession. Oscar for instance makes 1.8 tackles per game, almost twice as many as Hazard [1] not to mention Mata [0.8], and clears the ball more on average too with 1 per game compared with 0.1 and zip respectively from his fellow playmakers. However he also gets dribbled by opponents twice as much as Mata [1.2 times per game in contrast to 0.6] while Hazard leads them both in interceptions. 

 

Finding the right balance between his three No. 10s and the rest of the team is Benitez's biggest tactical challenge at Stamford Bridge. But if he can do it then perhaps his assertion that "we can do whatever we want" in the competitions remaining to Chelsea this season isn't that far-fetched after all.

Comments (1)

 
  • Dear Mr Horncastle Thank you for the very interesting article. I just signed in..twt is just too short.. I've been to every home match at Stamford Bridge this season..I've always liked Eden he is gifted he sees the game but he can seem nonchalant like gifted players are. When Eden arrived you could see he was eager but he was holding back..finding his feet. Seniority plays a strong role in the team..when you are playing with Lampard, when you have to serve Torres..although he could have scored on occasions..I felt he was selfless it was good because in France not so, this due to his responsibilities as you said. The three 10 were an attractive feature of Di Matteo's game the problem being did it serve Torres..I feel at least it was creative..now RB is restructuring to favour Torres we may lose that..the Ldc match was not a reference match I think as the opponent was weak. Finally I am not sure about Torres and him finding his confidence again..I think it's a tiring business.

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Alexis Sanchez Pedro Loïc Remy Sami Allagui Frédéric Kanouté Renato Augusto Jonathan Pitropia Eljero Elia Ivo Llicevic Fernando Muslera Diego Perez Alvaro González Abel Hernandez David VIlla Marcel Schmelzer Danijel Pranjic Holger Badstuber Sven Bender Johan Djourou Darren Fletcher Carlos Kameni Thiago Silve Antonia Di Natale Cristiano Zapata Domenico Criscito Luis Jimenez Josep Ilicic Samuel Eto’o Alexis Thébaux Ludovic Sané Mamouda Sakho Boukary Dramé Daniel Alves Nikolay Mihaylov Charles Puyol Ji-Sung Park Edwin van der Sar Dani Alves John O’Shea Park Ji-Jung Gabi Fernandez Jonathan de Guzman Michael Owen Gary Taylor-Fletcher Ian Evatt DJ Campbell Charles N’Zogbia Wolverhampton Robinho Rudi Garcia Avram Grant Conor Sammon Wayne Bridge Rob Green Victor Obinna Mike Hanke Borussia Munchengladbach VfL Bochum Tomasz Kuszczak Martin Olsson Brett Emerton Jermaine Jones Steven N’Zonzi Muset Ozil Gianpaolo Pazzini Leonardo Seydou Keita Miguel Pallardo Ibrahim Afellay Valdo Pallardo Damien Perquis Luka Modrid David SIlva Roberto Mancini Harry Redknapp Benoit Assou-Ekotto Vedran Corluka Carlo Ancelotti Saloman Kalou Clarence Seedorf Matteo Brighi Fabio Simplicio Rodrigo Taddei Mark Van Bommel Gennaro Gattuso Kevin Prince-Boateng Nicolas Burdisso Elkin Soto Pep Gaurdiola Lassana Diarra Jurgen Klopp Lucas Barrios Antonio da Silva Robert Mak Heurelho Gomes Andre Marriner Pinto Alavro Arbeloa Nikola Zigic Alexander Hleb Cameron Jerome

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