Four months into his post at Napoli, Maurizio Sarri told Gonzalo Higuain that if he didn’t win the Ballon d’Or, he would only have himself to blame.
The Chelsea manager’s recent remarks about Eden Hazard don’t combine carrot and stick in quite the same way, but the intention is replicated. Once again, Sarri has started a new reign by publicly laying down the most ambitious of challenges to the most talented player at his disposal.
In many ways, it epitomises Sarri’s view of the beautiful game. The ultimate objective is simple enough to summarise in just a sentence, like retaining possession at all costs or winning the Premier League Golden Boot, but the actual execution is a lot more difficult. Nonetheless, when your philosophy or ambitions can be abbreviated to less words than you have fingers, the message and the expectation is clear for everybody.
But it shouldn’t be underestimated how significant an achievement it would be for Sarri to guide Hazard’s transformation into a 40-goal player, pushing his scoring to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi territory. The Belgium international has never scored more than 19 goals across all competitions in a single season of his Chelsea career, and has even admitted he doesn’t possess the same burning determination to find the net as many contemporaries of his position and calibre.
“I don’t care about the number of goals I get. Statistics aren’t important for me.”
For Hazard, there’s as much beauty in creating goals, in leaving defenders dumbfounded with a piece of ingenious, intuitive skill, in simply manipulating everything that’s going on around him. Some would argue that’s why he’s always been just outside the bracket of Messi and Ronaldo, albeit ever-threatening to break into it, and occasionally given the perception that he’s merely coasting through a glistening career that could be reaching far greater heights.
But even without that driven hunger to make the onion bag continuously ripple, this season is different for Hazard. First and foremost, he enters it off the back of the greatest achievement of his career, taking Belgium to their best ever finish at a World Cup. Whereas other Premier League stars who reached the latter stages of the tournament in Russia have returned leggy and fatigued like Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Hazard seems rejuvenated by the whole experience.
Chelsea deserve credit there too; just as the media was whipping itself into a frenzy over rumours of a late summer move to Real Madrid, only further exacerbated by Thibaut Courtois refusing to return to training, they allowed Hazard an extra few days off at a moment of heightened political sensitivity.
It appeared naïve and certainly made it more difficult for Sarri to talk to the press, but the Blues are now reaping the rewards. Psychologically and physically, Hazard seems completely refreshed – five goals in five appearances, just three being starts, is pretty strong evidence of that.
Equally as big a factor though in making that 40-goal challenge genuinely plausible is the philosophy Sarri has brought to Stamford Bridge. It seems rather incredible that an attacking player so fluid and intuitive has only ever really worked under pragmatic managers until this point, but that’s precisely the case with the very brief exception of Roberto Di Matteo.
Jose Mourinho once vilified the forward for failing to track a full-back against Atletico Madrid, resulting in Chelsea’s elimination from the Champions League, rather than focusing on the incredible output he’d given the team that season – namely the third-most key passes per game and most dribbles per game of any Premier League player – which tells all about where the Portuguese’s priorities lie and how he saw fit to utilise the most talismanic talent at his disposal.
“Eden is the kind of player that is not so mentally ready to look back to his left-back and to leave his life for him. If you see the first goal of Atlético you completely understand where the mistake was and why we conceded that goal. The perfect team at the top level cannot make these kinds of mistakes.”
Antonio Conte, in fairness, gave Hazard a much freer role. But certainly last season, and certainly during Conte’s delve into a 3-5-1-1 formation, that freedom came at a cost of doing practically everything on his own. Eight Chelsea players sat deep, the striker laid the ball off to him and then the Belgian was tasked with somehow weaving through the rest of the opposition.
This season is already proving markedly different. Chelsea are averaging 2.8 goals a game, slightly more than their rate for the 2009/10 season when Carlo Ancelotti’s side set the previous record for Premier League goals in a single campaign. There’s no need to track back, because Chelsea’s full-backs are pushing so high offering any defensive cover on the flanks would be fundamentally pointless, and Hazard’s able to take up more central positions where he can bounce off team-mates in close proximity.
Pedro drifts inside, Matteo Kovacic pushes forward from midfield, Olivier Giroud offers endless layoffs, Marcos Alonso is always attacking the space on the overlap and even N’Golo Kante’s getting into the box. The level of offensive intent is nothing like Hazard has experienced before at Chelsea.
But perhaps too, Hazard is becoming a little hungrier for goals, a little more direct in what should be peak years of his career. The 27-year-old’s statistics extrapolated across the whole season highlight how plausible that 40-goal target is for Hazard should he maintain something near to his current form – even if we bring dips and potential injuries into the equation, he’s averaged 50 games per season throughout his entire Chelsea career so anything above 30 strikes in the Premier League alone would put him in great stead to hit that milestone across all competitions – however, they also suggest the dynamics of his game are changing slightly.
Should his current rates continue, while Hazard will finish up with exactly the same number of key passes as he did last season, he’ll actually complete less dribbles and take almost one shot at goal more per game.
It insinuates a slightly more selfish Hazard, one who looks up at the goal before he turns his head to bring others into play or tries to beat opponents, and one who will have some kind of goalscoring target in the back of his mind.
That subtle but important change in mentality could be what finally transforms Hazard from the best of the rest to Messi and Ronaldo’s rightful successor.
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