Eden Hazard currently finds himself in the unfamiliar position of leading the race for the Premier League Golden Boot alongside Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Despite consistently operating at a high level for Chelsea, the Belgian winger has rarely been regarded as a reliable goal scorer. Previously Hazard has been characterised by fluctuating form; nobody doubts there is a permanent class to his game but the purest essence of this talent often only emerges in fleeting glimpses. Maurizio Sarri’s biggest task as Chelsea manager will be to extract the winger’s greatest attributes, refine them to their highest concentration and allow Hazard the freedom to express himself on the pitch. The pair have complemented one another exquisitely so far.
Every Premier League fan has become accustomed to Hazard’s darting runs infield from the left channel. At full flight, he is akin to the footballing equivalent of Eminem rapping double time. Marshall Mathers makes such intricacy appear effortless, even joyful, weaving through tongue-twisting syllables and in the same manner, the Belgian leaves defenders’ legs tied in knots. Entire defences are rendered hapless by Hazard’s trickery to the point of embarrassment.
However, in the past, unlike his musical counterpart Hazard’s game has been criticised for a lack of end product in the form of goals. This season has seen that all change.
Hazard has scored seven goals at a rate of just 95 minutes per goal. Perhaps even more impressively, these goals have come from only 14 shots which leaves the Belgian with a staggering conversion rate of 79%. Shooting statistics such as those would be the envy of Cristiano Ronaldo and Leonel Messi; comparatively, Sergio Aguero has had 15 more shots but has scored one less than Hazard.
The cynic could argue that the winger’s improved lethality in front of goal may be fuelled by a desire to prove his worth to Florentino Perez ahead a prospective move to Real Madrid. However, that would be overly reductionist. It is more likely that an enhanced tactical awareness, coupled with the unburdening from the defensive responsibilities that restricted him under former manager Antonio Conte, have set the Belgian free to reach the uppermost periphery of his capability.
Critics of Hazard’s have previously expressed concern he lacks the ‘win at all costs’ mentality that is required to score goals consistently. When the Belgian walks on to the pitch, there is an emphasis on the word play; his jovial demeanour and effortless creativity occasionally masks any visible signs of his overwhelming desire to succeed both individually and as a team.
In truth, Hazard has previously unselfishly adapted his role on the pitch to maximise the productivity of those who surround him. Though under Chelsea’s latest Italian tactician, a reversal has occurred and the team appears to be set up to facilitate the Belgian’s talents. If Sarri can replicate the transformation undertaken by either Dries Mertens or Lorenzo Insigne at former club Napoli, Hazard may be barely recognisable from the promising but frustratingly inconsistent figure he’s formerly cut at Stamford Bridge.
Mertens is often cited as the primary beneficiary of Sarri’s tenure in charge of Napoli. Prior to working with the Italian, the winger had remarkably similar attributes to Hazard, although admittedly with less overall ability.
Before Sarri’s tenure at Napoli, Mertens was considered an out-and-out winger and had scored 22 Serie A goals in his first three seasons. With the sale of Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus in 2016, Napoli were left devoid of a reliable goal threat which would have proved to be the undoing of many managers. However, Sarri had a different perspective. He took advantage of Merten’s malleable positional sense and moulded him into a fluid centre-forward. The result was frightening. 28 Serie A goals in a single season followed, narrowly missing out on the Capocannoniere to Eden Dzeko by a single goal. Hazard’s fulfilment of his potential relies on his ability to adapt to Sarri’s system the same way his fellow countryman did at Napoli.
His influence often begins out wide when interacting with the build-up play and, once a move progresses, Hazard benefits greatly from Sarri’s preference to prioritise the left channel for cultivating attacks. The winger is then given license to roam inside as the capable Marcus Alonso pushes up to provide width in the left channel. Quick recycling of possession in a triangular fashion opens vertical passing lanes for Hazard to exploit, either through straight bursts to the byline which provide angled cutbacks across the box, or, when the opportunity presents itself, a more direct route towards goal where the Belgian can shot from central areas.
Alternatively, if there is no forward option available, Hazard has Alonso patrolling the left touchline with Mateo Kovacic, Jorginho or N’Golo Kante providing inside passing options. Chelsea’s star man is making on average over 18 more passes per game and, with an increased number of passing options, Hazard is also relinquishing possession less frequently. Compared to other wingers, the Belgian’s 86% pass completion rate is bettered only by Raheem Sterling and Pedro this season.
Sarri’s tactical set up incorporates an incredibly high defensive line, which has suffocated other sides due to the congestion in midfield. In addition to this, reducing the space between defence and midfield alters Hazard’s role. He is no longer called upon to just drive inside off the left with only a striker for company but now has the option to participate in intricate passing combinations with teammates which accentuates his ability to work in tight spaces.
Moreover, Sarri’s system focuses on moving the ball quickly to create space behind the defensive line as opposed to Antonio Conte’s preferred method of generating space between the opposition defence and midfield. Now significantly closer to goal when shooting, Hazard is considerably more likely to score, as well as conserving energy, this is a stark contrast from the counter-attacking which characterised the Conte era.
While all this evidence suggests that Hazard has improved greatly this season, the question remains: is he capable of winning the Premier League Golden Boot?
The statistics suggest no.
Since the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams, the winner of the Golden Boot has scored, on average, 24.5 goals. Nikolas Anelka was the last player to win the Golden Boot with less than 20 goals when he scored 19 for Chelsea a decade ago.
Recent trends dictate that the number of goals required to bag the individual honour is increasing with the average being 28.6 goals in the last five years. Hazard’s highest Premier League goal tally for a season is 16 and the only wingers to win the prize previously were Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah. All things considered, the outcome of Hazard winning appears improbable.
There is also another major issue confronting Hazard. Belgium had their most successful World Cup and Roberto Martinez’s talisman was a crucial element to the Red Devils’ success in Russia. Unfortunately for the winger, this extended run into the tournament left him with only four weeks between his last World Cup appearance and returned for Chelsea as a substitute this season.
Sarri has managed the situation well thus far and has had a precise understanding of when Hazard requires rotation. There may be some concerns though later in the season when scheduling might not be quite so kind to The Blues and Hazard’s busy summer may finally catch up with him.
At present this remains merely a theory and there is no evidence to suggest Hazard is drained in any sense of the word. His situation at Stamford Bridge has never been quite so fortuitous. Speculation surrounding a potential move to the Spanish capital will persist and Hazard certainly has a decision to make about his future should his evolution under Sarri continue. If he was to win the Golden Boot, there should be no assumption that the goals would continue in the same frequency at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Furthermore, the Chelsea attack could inflict untold devastation if Sarri is backed in the coming transfer windows and the Italian manager will certainly look to further compliment Hazard’s talents with any future signings. Sarri doesn’t obsess over the transfer market in the same manner as his predecessor, but a few subtle tweaks in midfield and a mobile centre-forward could provide Hazard with an even higher standard of service.
It is difficult not to be cautiously skeptical about whether this is just another one of Chelsea’s false dawns and it is an all too frequent occurrence that one brilliant season breeds complacency in the next for the club. Sarri is the latest in a succession of managers attempting to relinquish Stamford Bridge of its perpetual boom-bust cycle and his professional, tactical and personal relationship with Hazard is integral to his success at the club.
Even if the winger misses out on the individual award this season, there’s no doubting a second term under Sarri’s tutelage would leave Hazard even better prepared.