It’s unfair to single out one poor player in the Chelsea team last season. The entire group was below par, as the Blues slumped to a 10th place finish following the title win the year before. However, the fact remains that the expectations differ from individual to individual.
Eden Hazard was the star of the 2014/15 title-winning campaign, picking up the PFA Player of the Year award for his performances. His mercurial skill on the ball, coupled with some very timely goals and assists, made Hazard the darling of the Premier League. He was an absolute pleasure to watch, and everyone expected him to kick on and scale greater heights in the following campaign.
Alas, that was not to be. What followed was a drop in form so incredible that it was almost unbelievable. The Belgian looked completely out of sorts, jaded and tired. His dip was exposed more because it was parallel to the one suffered by his team, as Chelsea lost 9 out of their first 16 games before José Mourinho was given the sack. After scoring 14 times in the league the season before, Hazard remained goalless in the competition until April 2016. It was downright baffling.
A free role, and a rejuvenation
It was often talked about how Mourinho’s demands from Hazard to also focus on his defensive side of the game had left the player exhausted. It was plain to see that the winger wasn’t able to maintain his level of intensity in the first half of last season. It is no secret that he has always wanted a more free role in the side, with the licence to express himself as and how he wants. Early last month, he had the following words to say, as quoted here by the Daily Mail:
I like to play as a No 10. I think I have more freedom offensively. For Belgium, we have full backs who run hard and create a lot of space, which is good and I like to play there.
I don’t know if I will play there at Chelsea. You need to ask the manager! I play on the left hand side and I try to do the best I can.
It is unlikely that Antonio Conte was influenced by these words, but Hazard has got what he wants. He isn’t exactly a number 10, as Chelsea’s 3-4-3 system doesn’t have a designated player in the position. But starting from the left hand side, the 25 year-old is now able to manouvre into central areas as he sees fit.
The results are there for all to see. Hazard has scored in 3 consecutive league games for the first time in his career. Upon further analysis, we can see how all of them have come from a different area of the pitch – central (against Leicester City), right flank (Manchester United) and left flank (Southampton).
He is clearly enjoying his football again, and was deservingly given the Player of the Month award for October.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) November 2, 2016
Can he inspire Chelsea to the title?
Hazard has scored 5 league goals this season, one more than he managed in the whole of the last campaign.
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) October 31, 2016
Along with Diego Costa, there is no question that he is the main attacking threat in this team. With Cesc Fabregas‘ regular place in the side very much in doubt, everyone is going to look to Hazard to come up with the goods in the attacking third.
The likes of Willian, Pedro, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses may offer a lot in terms of movement and penetration, but aren’t going to be the ones to score or create 15-20 goals a season. That is very much down to Hazard and Costa.
At the start of the season, nobody really expected Chelsea to be sure-shot challengers for the title. After losing to Liverpool and Arsenal in September, it looked like the top 4 was the most likely target for the club to try and achieve this season.
Now, things have changed. The teams in front of them have shown frailties, while Conte has settled on his best personnel and system. Four wins and four clean sheets in October mean that the Blues are just a point off the top.
Maintaining this level of consistency throughout will be easier said than done, but Hazard certainly has the ability to make a huge difference. While on song, he is nigh-on impossible to defend against. Chelsea will be taking it one game at a time without thinking too much into the future, but with their main man in such blistering form, one can never say never.