Eden Hazard was by far the best attacker on the pitch in last weekend’s FA Cup final as Chelsea eked out a 1-0 win against a stodgy Manchester United, providing the match’s defining moment from the penalty spot.
After a season in which the Blues have again underperformed the year after clinching the Premier League title, the Belgian – valued at £90m by Transfermarkt – underlined just how central he is at Stamford Bridge, elevating a physical, functional side with his artistry and poise.
However, Chelsea will not play in the Champions League next season and Hazard has said that he will wait to see who arrives at Stamford Bridge this summer before committing his future to the club.
That means that rumours linking him to Real Madrid refuse to go away – the latest batch claim he will go to the Bernabeu if Chelsea get Marco Asensio in return – and there is the chance that the Blues will line up next season without him, if a deal sure to be around his £90m valuation can be agreed.
So what would be the consequence be for Chelsea if Hazard did leave? We’ve taken a closer look at some of them from a personnel and tactical point of view…
There is no doubt about it, Hazard is Chelsea’s main source of creativity. He is the man that the Blues turn to when they’re in a tight spot, when they need to unlock a packed defence or when defensive pressure needs easing.
In his absence, there would be a huge creative burden to bear. Willian is clearly unsettled at Stamford Bridge and could also leave this summer so Pedro, who is not the most popular man among the Blues fanbase, is the next man in the frame.
He was genuinely outstanding during his time at Barcelona so he may take to the role better than some expect, but he has always been a player who makes the runs in behind, relying on a playmaker behind him.
Pedro being Chelsea’s main creator next season would be a worry.
In the modern era, Chelsea have always been synonymous with a sole striker system. Jose Mourinho’s mid-2000s success was based around a 4-3-3 formation and various iterations of 4-5-1 persisted until Antonio Conte’s 3-4-2-1 took the Premier League by storm in 2016/17.
Conte has shuffled his pack at times this term but has seldom gone for a genuine front two, preferring Hazard behind a main frontman when he has gone 3-5-2.
The Belgian’s departure may pave the way for a change of approach. Chelsea would no longer need to leave him the space in the pockets in which to operate and a more direct, attacking approach might be on the cards.
Chelsea could well have four strikers – Alvaro Morata (or Robert Lewandowski), Olivier Giroud, Michy Batshuayi and Tammy Abraham – in the squad next season and playing two at a time may increase the side’s potency.
Chelsea never really looked like getting into the top four this season and while part of that can be attributed to the unrest surrounding Antonio Conte’s future, the fact remains that they were far from good enough.
The three teams that finished directly above the Blues will all invest heavily to attempt to close the gap on Manchester City, the runaway champions who have money to burn, underlining the scale of the task facing Chelsea to get back into the Champions League places.
Without Hazard, that task becomes even more difficult. There would be money there to secure a replacement but with a new manager, potentially a new style of play and new team-mates to get used to, there is no guarantee that Chelsea’s new playmaker would settle quickly or even be at Hazard’s level.
We’ve touched on it above but Chelsea would need a creator and someone to step into the breach left by Hazard’s departure.
That quality may well not be available at the right price in the market – especially in World Cup year and with Chelsea’s managerial situation still not sorted out – but they may be able to find it already within their club.
The Blues’ youth system has been feted for years now but has as yet failed to produce an established first-team regular; the most likely candidate to break that duck is surely Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
With creativity the order of the day, the fearless Englishman could be just the man to step up and there aren’t many things that would please Chelsea fans more.