Why Eden Hazard is likely to win the Player of the Year Award this season
The idea of a player of the year or has always been a rather hoary concept in football, not least because it is a team game. Of course, the very fact it is a team game makes it even more difficult to judge individual performance.
Do a player's fine displays have the same merit if they have no tangible effect on a team's performance? Can that really be considered the same as lifting a side up when it is really on the line? On the other side of things, how much can you divorce an individual performance from the context of the collective he plays in? Is a player generally only able to do it when it's on the line because the quality of his team has put him that close?
Really, the fundamental idea behind an individual award should be whether a player has applied his ability to the point it tangibly lifts a team's level, arguably to a feat that they wouldn't have otherwise reached. That was precisely the case with Luis Suarez last season. Although Liverpool might well have challenged for a Champions League place under Brendan Rodgers, as has been the case this campaign, it seems inconceivable that they would have got close to a title race without the Uruguayan's unique brilliance.
This season, there is no such clear candidate, but there is another complication. There's barely been anyone that's performed at the same consistently high level for the full campaign - or at least the full season so far. There's instead been a lot of half-seasons from the most heavily fancied stars. Yet, despite the fact there is still two months of the campaign to go, the question about the awards has already been broached.
Mauricio Pochettino was asked about it on Saturday, in relation to Harry Kane's form. The 21-year-old striker has been brilliant, but his season still only really started towards the end of November, and only really accelerated in the new year.
Really, the most consistent players – and possibly most influential to their side's league positions – have been David De Gea and John Terry. But the nature of these awards and the voting means neither really has a chance of winning the accolades. So, what about those that the bookies consider most likely; those that have blazed the brightest this season? All, of course, have had lulls. Many have had outright dips.
Perhaps the most drastic has been Cesc Fabregas. He started the season stridently changing Chelsea's entire style almost on his own, only to so badly - and some would say so typically - fade in the new year. Some of the figures are stark. He has declined in almost everything.
Fabregas hasn't scored at all since the turn of the year, and assists less, with that undeniably linked to how his key passes have dropped from 3.4 per game to 2.1 and his passing accuracy has fallen from 87.5% to 82.8%. He is also a little less involved, playing just 78.5 passes per game compared to a previous of 86.8. In short, he is having nowhere near the same influence, as merely watching his performances indicates.
Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez aren't too far off that type of decline, though. For one, two players that had looked like they could hit supreme goalscoring ratios have badly subsided in that regard. Aguero's scoring rate has gone from 0.93 per match to 0.3, and Sanchez's from 0.55 to 0.33.
Diego Costa, for his part, has actually improved his goalscoring rate. That's gone from 0.83 to 0.86, but it still seems a little detached from his general performances, which felt much more rampaging before Christmas. Well, in that regard, all of his key passes (1.8 to 1.3), shooting accuracy (50% to 43.1%) and passing success (79.2% to 70%) have all gone down. He has generally flagged a bit.
Kane, meanwhile, has gone in the opposite direction. He's accelerated as the season has gone on. Most obviously, his goals per game have shot up from 0.33 to 1.27, but that has naturally come from a context where every aspect of his game has improved. He shoots more, plays more key passes and is generally just so much more accurate. It still says a lot that there was so much to improve.
The one candidate for player of the year who has not seen such oscillations is Eden Hazard. He maybe hasn't gone to quite the levels that Fabregas or Aguero did early on, but he has stayed closest to those levels for the longest time. His contribution has remained consistent throughout, and has come out of a scenario where he is more regularly offering the genuine match-winning moments that Jose Mourinho demanded of him.
Sunday's opening goal against Hull City means he now either scores or assists every 1.6 games, compared to 1.7 before the new year. He has also upped his amount of general and key passes, and is even tackling more.
He is one player still taking the season on the same terms as he has done throughout. As such, Hazard remains the outstanding candidate for player of the year. He has been the most consistent, and it is likely to lift his team to a title.