After his mesmerising, match-winning display against Stoke City last weekend, bagging Chelsea’s first goal from the penalty spot and supplying Loic Remy for their second in a 2-1 win, Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp raised an interesting point regarding Eden Hazard, claiming the only remaining difference between him and Ballon d’Or duopoly Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is the Belgium international’s inferior supply of goals.
Indeed, for an attacker of such obvious talent, now a shoo-in for the PFA’s Player of the Year award, Hazard’s twelve goals and seven assists in 30 Premier League appearances isn’t as spectacular as one might expect.
He’s neither Chelsea’s top scorer nor leading creator this season, with those titles going to Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas respectively, and is a significant distance behind some of Europe’s other top wingers; Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben boasts 17 goals and seven assists from nine league appearances less, for example, Garth Bale has 13 goals and seven assists from 26 La Liga outings for Real Madrid, Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez surpasses him by one in both categories and Neymar has 17 league goals for Barcelona, whilst Messi and Ronaldo are in a completely different league altogether.
Hazard’s goals and assists rate for Chelsea is more in line with Theo Walcott’s at Arsenal, the former’s 35 goals and 25 assists in 99 Premier League appearances making him in some way responsible for 0.6 goals per match, the latter’s 38 goals and 29 assists in 119 Premier League appearances since the start of the 2010/11 campaign making him in some way responsible for 0.57.
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One could throw up some statistical counter-points – the fact he boasts the second-most successful dribbles per match, 4.8, of any player in Europe’s five leading top flights, draws the most fouls, 3.1, and creates the third-most chances per match, 2.9, of any player in the Premier League – but in truth, Hazard’s brilliance and his importance to Chelsea stems far beyond quantitative recognition.
We’re now at a point where every Blues attack is dependent upon an injection of the Belgium international’s genius, be it an intricate one-two, a mazy run towards the penalty area or simply an exceptional take from a difficult pass. As a consequence, games are beginning to revolve almost exclusively around the 23 year-old, despite the enormous talent throughout the Chelsea squad.
To reduce Fabregas and Costa to supporting roles may seem abruptly dismissive, but as the season’s gone on it’s become more and more about what Hazard can produce. That level of consistency, even when not racking up the goals and assists, is perhaps the 23 year-old’s most impressive feat; he’s started every league game for Chelsea without being subbed off since October, despite the vast majority of Premier League defences opting to hack him down as a strategy of containment, and none of his twelve league goals have come in the same match.
Compare that to Sergio Aguero, for example, who put four past Tottenham but couldn’t find an equaliser against Burnley a few weeks go, or Alexis Sanchez, who scored 12 goals in his first 20 league outings for Arsenal before netting just twice more in his next eight. Likewise, Fabregas’ form has dipped since the turn of 2015, Costa’s frequently found himself sidelined through injury and opposing winger Willian floats in and out of the side at the expense of Juan Cuadrado, but Hazard’s influence has only become more prevalent.
And it may seem like a rather simplistic point for a player of such complexity, but Hazard’s most important task for Chelsea is the one he excels at best – getting the ball as far up the pitch as possible and gaining vital territory. Even when the goals and assists have been hard to come by, the Belgium international has remained prolific in his ability to bring Chelsea’s attack from the halfway line to the penalty box, allowing the Blues to ring-fence and siege.
For a team with as formidable aerial ability as Chelsea, currently boasting the fourth-most set piece goals of any Premier League side, turning possession around the halfway line to free kicks and corners in the final third is a priceless service.
The likes of Willian and Cuadrado are capable of this too, but neither with Hazard’s incredible regularity or the virtual guarantee of not losing possession. Similarly, when other wingers roar up the pitch, there’s always a feeling of playing percentages – x amount of times they’ll break a tackle, x amount of times they’ll win a free kick, x amount of times they’ll win a throw in and x amount of times they’ll be stopped – but with Hazard, its all conscious and deliberate; he knows when he can beat a defense and when he cant, when it’s better to take them on alone or wait for reinforcements, when to cut inside or go wide, and when to persevere with an attack or recycle it into something new. For a player so young, the Belgian’s decision-making, especially when combined with his ability to hold onto the ball, is exceptional.
Thus, unlike Robben or Ronaldo, for example, two wingers who will always almost exclusively be judged on their goals, it’s Hazard’s all-round contribution, his ability to remain at the epicentre of everything Chelsea do going forward and dictate their direction, that makes him such a special player. Whilst the qualities of some translate into numbers far more accurately, to understand Hazard’s brilliance – and his importance to Chelsea – you need to watch him in action.