As the PFA announced the nominees for the well-respected PFA Player of the Year award, some inclusions and exclusions sparked a debate. Many were outraged that Tottenham’s superb attacker Dele Alli, for example, wasn’t among the nominees. One player whose inclusion was undebatable though was the Belgian attacker Eden Hazard starring for Chelsea. After a difficult season last year under José Mourinho, Hazard has recaptured his form from the previous season when Mourinho’s Chelsea strolled to the title with Hazard being the main man in Chelsea’s attack. Hazard scored 14 goals and added nine assists in Chelsea’s title winning campaign, following up a superb first season under Mourinho where he netted 14 and assisted seven. This campaign has seen Hazard’s position change under the new manager Antonio Conte, but Hazard is on course for a best ever season with him already having scored 14 goals and assisted five. With six games to go, you’d bet on him to beat the stats of previous season.
Conte’s Chelsea has been rampant since he famously changed the formation into the 3-4-3 we’ve witnessed since October. Hazard has been deployed as the left-sided attacker primarily positioned in the left half-space with wing-back Marcos Alonso outside of him. This is a huge change from previous seasons when Hazard has regularly been the left winger in a 4-2-3-1. This have meant a wider starting position and more responsibility to track back, often following his opposing right back all the way back to his own box. With Conte using Hazard in a role the Italians call “fantasista” as the side’s main creator, Hazard can move more freely to create from a central position. With the wing-backs joining the three centre-backs in defence to form a five-man defensive line, Hazard can join the two central midfielders and defend from a more central position in Chelsea’s 5-4-1 defensive formation. This means when Chelsea wins the ball back, Hazard can be more effective in the counterattack as he starts centrally and closer to goal. Added to the positional freedom he’s been granted in attack, moving freely between the opponent’s midfield and defensive line, Hazard has been devastating all season and a joy to watch.
Clinical on the counterattack
While Chelsea uses a positional build up style and are quite methodical in their possession play, they’re also absolutely sensational when they counterattack. Conte’s formation sees Hazard and Pedro defend narrow which means they are closer to central striker Diego Costa when they win the ball and are closer to the goal which makes them more threatening.
As you see in these two examples, Hazard’s starting position is much more central than it previously has been under Mourinho, giving him a much closer path towards goal. The last goal against Arsenal highlights all his qualities as an attacker; speed, skill, balance, strength, calmness and finishing. Watch it again. And again.
In some games with Diego Costa suspended or subbed off, Hazard has been used up front as the central forward of the three. His movement and intelligence then comes to the fore, as well as being a key outlet when his teammates are under pressure, as this goal at Manchester City illustrates.
Positional freedom and football-intelligence
Antonio Conte is a great thinker. Tactically, he always comes well-prepared and his teams are always extremely well set up and prepared for what they’re going to do. Throughout his career, at Juventus, with Italy and at Chelsea, Conte has valued intelligent footballers and giving them key roles in his teams. At Juventus, he built an entire team around the genius of Andrea Pirlo and the superb final third qualities of Carlos Tevez while with Italy he gave Daniele De Rossi a key role in his team as the fulcrum of midfield while Leonardo Bonucci was promoted to the side’s playmaker despite playing in central defence. Conte gives intelligent footballers a platform to perform the qualities that makes them unique, and he’s doing the same with Hazard.
In his deployment of Hazard centrally, the Belgian is almost given positional freedom within an otherwise quite rigid and positionally focused team. Hazard is often seen wandering around in the space between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines to find space to weave his magic.
In the video above we see Hazard drift to the right hand side to find some space before quickly combining with Pedro and ultimately score a wonderful goal.
Hazard’s understanding of space is also important around the box when Chelsea face a deep defence. In the video below we see Chelsea at home to Manchester United. Hazard has the ball in the left half-space. He plays the ball inside, scans the area around him and sees the empty space in the penalty area. He makes a quick run into it and receives a great pass from Matic before scoring emphatically.
Dribbling ability and chance creation
Obviously, Hazard is superb when running at defenders. His dribbling is usually direct and he isolates defenders before quickly ghosting past him. Hazard can beat defenders with his dribbling skill or simply by his pace and astonishing acceleration. His balance is also superb and he’s very strong which sees him be impossible to dispossess even with his back to defenders where he can use all of his physical attributes together with his technical to beat his marker.
Hazard’s ability in beating opponents and his intelligence to read the game makes him not only a good goalscorer but also a superb creator. Hazard’s passing around the box is excellent and his creativity makes him one of the best creators in European football.
Eden Hazard has been terrific this season and the key attacking player at a Chelsea side that still remains on top of the table with six games to go. Even if Chelsea doesn’t win the league, Hazard has enjoyed another great season for the Blues and has established himself as one of Europe’s best attackers. Should he win it? In my eyes he has been the league’s standout player and has also scored against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal all the while thriving in a new position on the pitch. Eden Hazard won the league title and the PFA Player of the Year Award in 2015 and there is a huge possibility for him to do it again in 2017.