Eden Hazard is the kind of player who leaves you wanting more. When he’s good, some expect him to be great. When he’s great, people ask why he isn’t contesting the Ballon d’Or with serial winners Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
The 27-year-old has been at Chelsea for six years and worked under six managers. Each of them had a different view of how Hazard should play. One of them questioned the Belgian’s heart and was more comfortable without the winger in the team because Hazard did not put in a defensive shift. It takes a ‘special’ sort of coach to come to this conclusion and Jose Mourinho is the longest-serving Blues manager during Hazard’s time in London.
At Stamford Bridge, you can get a genuine journeyman’s experience without ever having to move clubs. Managers, with their different tactical theories, come to you and, potentially, mess with your mind and your game.
The latest, Maurizio Sarri, is taking the opposite approach to Mourinho. The new Chelsea coach wants his star player to spend more time in and around the opposition box and has suggested that Hazard has the potential to score 40 goals by May. This, inevitably, throws up comparisons with Mohamed Salah — a Mourinho reject — who scored 44 times for Liverpool in a remarkable run last season.
Jurgen Klopp’s side play Chelsea twice in the next five days, giving Hazard a chance to stamp his authority. On Wednesday, the teams face off at Anfield in the Carabao Cup. The real action is at the Bridge on Saturday in the Premier League.
Hazard has had a fine start to the season. He is the division’s joint top scorer with five goals and, although he was not at his best against West Ham, the Belgian appears to be the freshest of all the English-based players who went deep into the World Cup knockout rounds.
Sarri has managed Hazard’s start to the season cleverly. His performance at London Stadium was characterised by some poor decision-making and a little tactical confusion, but his pace and dynamism stood out.
Salah has not been so sharp, but others in Klopp’s team have stepped up and, although Liverpool have not recaptured the flamboyant form of last season, they have been grittier and more balanced during their 100 per cent start. They will present a different challenge for Chelsea.
On Sunday, West Ham flooded their defensive areas and tried to crowd Hazard out whenever he picked up the ball. Liverpool will target Chelsea’s talisman with their high press, but there will be more space available against Klopp’s men. If Hazard can sidestep the onrushing red shirts, he can cause massive problems for the League leaders.
Chelsea are some way behind their Merseyside rivals at this point, as Sarri noted post-match. It makes sense to push Hazard upfield and let others do the defensive heavy lifting, especially given the pace and directness of Klopp’s front three.
The problem is that the Italian inherited an unbalanced squad. The defence needs strengthening. Sarri is also working to find the right mix in midfield. It might seem a great idea to play Hazard up front, but playing alongside Olivier Giroud is very different from linking up with Alvaro Morata, a second-half replacement for the France striker.
Dropping points against West Ham was disappointing, but few observers could have expected Chelsea to reach this stage of the season unbeaten. This start bodes well for the rest of the campaign but there is plenty of work to be done.
Perhaps Sarri will be the one who builds the team around the Belgian and both will be given an extended run with clear ideas about how player and team can develop beyond the short term. Hazard is, arguably, the most talented player in the League. He would be even better with a bit of consistency — not in his own displays, but from the club and Chelsea’s management.