A distinct era of Chelsea Football Club is set to come to an end this summer as Eden Hazard prepares to depart for Real Madrid after admitting that Wednesday’s Europa League final might have been his last match for the club.
The influential talisman was at his imperious best against Arsenal in Baku, scoring twice as Chelsea ran rampant in a stunning second-half performance to win 4-1.
Replacing Hazard’s contributions is not realistic at the best of times, but considering Chelsea’s transfer ban it’s nigh on impossible.
Not only must Maurizio Sarri find a way to compensate for the Belgian’s 16 goals and 15 assists in the Premier League, but also for the key passes, fouls suffered, and successful dribbles, all categories in which Hazard ranks amongst the top three within the Premier League this season.
It’s this last category, the dribbling ability, that has made Hazard’s name and created such a dominant attacking force for the last seven years at Stamford Bridge.
Hazard’s stunning ability to glide past players as if the ball is stuck to his feet has made the Belgian one of the Premier League’s most feared players, capable of sauntering past opposition defences at any time, displayed by his sumptuous individual efforts against Liverpool and West Ham this season.
However, the number ten’s close control and rapid movements have a greater effect than the actual goals scored. Hazard’s primary skill allows him to drag defenders in his direction thereby yielding space to others, while constantly making the opposition question themselves and their positioning.
This Hazard-caused mayhem is what Chelsea will be losing most, but also what might be easiest to replace.
In Kovacic, Chelsea have an enigmatic talent who is clearly blessed with supreme skill and ability on the ball, but who also has scored just six league goals in his last 185 appearances. Despite only being in west London on loan, Chelsea can make the deal permanent regardless of the outcome of their transfer ban appeal, according to The Telegraph.
The current iteration of Chelsea doesn’t seem to quite have a place for Kovacic, but with Hazard out of the picture, the Croatian should shine as the club’s primary ball-carrier.
The 25-year old’s main skill is his close control and ability to turn away from trouble, making it very hard to successfully press him into mistakes without dragging multiple players out of position.
Wednesday’s Europa League final saw Kovacic demonstrate his vibrant ability to control the game with the ball at his feet. The former Inter Milan midfielder attempted five dribbles, second-most after Hazard, while completing three of them, also good for second-best after the Belgian.
Not only was Kovacic getting on the ball regularly, but he was heavily influencing the game as well. Chelsea’s second goal came from Kovacic running with the ball before passing to Hazard who assisted Pedro.
Chelsea’s third goal again came from the Croatia international’s lung-busting runs. Kovacic picked the ball up just inside Arsenal’s half and ran at the Gunners defence, beating everyone in sight and causing confusion before finding Pedro who played in Giroud to be upended for the Chelsea penalty.
Replacing Hazard is not just a tall order, but in reality, it’s virtually impossible. What Chelsea can do, however, is find a collection of players who bring parts of the Belgian’s game and Kovacic can be the one to take up the dribbling mantle.