Why Hazard is Chelsea’s most improved player
The 2013/14 season has been somewhat of a strange one for Chelsea. The club has grown accustomed to success during Roman Abramovich’s reign but the campaign ultimately ended without a piece of silverware despite the widespread opinion that the return of the Special One would spark a surge towards yet another trophy.
Some established players have suffered a decline in fortune, namely John Obi Mikel and Ashley Cole, who are both set to leave Stamford Bridge this summer. Others have experienced a resurgence in form, led by captain John Terry, whose aura has been restored by his Portuguese boss.
However, one man within the squad has improved dramatically during his second year in England’s flight and has emerged as a hugely influential player; Eden Hazard.
The Belgian winger’s form has been sensational, earning him not only Chelsea’s player of the year accolade to end the departed Juan Mata’s dominance, but also the PFA Young Player of the Year award. The £32 million fee it took to prise the youngster away from Lille in June 2012 already looks like money well spent.
In truth, Hazard is arguably worth double that figure at present, with a number of clubs, including Paris Saint-Germain, reportedly keen to table a bid of such magnitude in the near future.
But given that Chelsea clearly have a phenomenal talent on their hands, even that could not be enough to persuade the Blues to sell. Few players can lay claim to such vast improvement over the course of one season and Hazard is ahead of schedule in his progression.
New arrivals either seamlessly slip into life in the Premier League or struggle to adapt to the physicality. Hazard was firmly in the former category, although his style of play was predictably raw and his decision making could be found lacking at times. But he managed to score a total of nine league goals, bettered only by Mata and Frank Lampard.
The Spaniard was the creative focus of interim manager Rafael Benitez’s side, but Hazard chipped in by creating 65 chances, including 11 assists. Such a return was impressive and he frequently demonstrated his ability to pick a pass and drift between the lines from the left flank.
However, this season his game has been taken to a new level which has made him unplayable at times. Crucial differences and tweaks to his attitude have pushed him further towards the upper echelons of the best players in the world.
Firstly, he found the net 14 times, which comfortably secured his place at the club’s leading goalscorer. With a failing strike force leading the line and Mata marginalised then sold, Chelsea needed a player to carry the goalscoring burden and Hazard responded.
His stature in the team has grown, he is now the stand out performer and his style of play has been tweaked to adjust to his new role. The responsibility of scoring so frequently led to an over reliance on Hazard by his team-mates, which did not sit well with Mourinho.
The amount of chances that he created last season rose to an unprecedented 92, the highest total of any player in the Premier League. His number of assists, seven, was reasonable, but the key factor that has led to his overall improvement was an ability to know when to pass and when to take the ball on himself. He took 54 shots last season compared to 42 in his debut campaign and forces the issue off of his own back.
His confidence was never lacking, but this season he has taken control of games more frequently and there has been a sense of inevitability when he takes the field, in the manner in which Cristiano Ronaldo constantly looks like he will make a telling contribution.
Hazard possesses a unique dribbling style that many an experienced defender is unable to contain and it is his improvement in the take on department which has set him apart from others. The tricky winger completed a staggering 132 from 210 attempts last season, easily the best total in the Premier League, 39 more than Luis Suarez.
In the 2012/13 season he completed just 63 from 128. His skill on the ball is edging him towards the complete package. As Hazard matures, he will only get better if he continues in the same vein. Time is still on his side, although his inexperience showed when he spoke out against his manager following the Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid.
He is not yet ready to become a talisman but his presence is growing. Occasionally he can still go missing and fail to take a game by the scruff of the neck. Having been tipped to challenge for Ballon d’Or during his career such inconsistencies will need to be ironed out.
However, he should not concern himself with such individual prizes but focus on helping his side challenge for silverware. Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation is perfectly poised to provide him with the stage to fulfil his potential. It is his drive and attitude that will push him onto the next level, not natural talent.