With Belgium set to face Panama in the first Group G encounter of the 2018 World Cup, Jon Kibel asks whether Eden Hazard can take his game to the next level in Russia, as Belgium’s Golden Generation set out to stun the world.
Just how good is Eden Hazard? It’s easy to say that he is very good; great; one of the best players in the world. The Belgian has won three player of the year awards across two leagues, been elected to seven team of the years in ten years, won three league titles and a Europa League, and generally has been acknowledged as one of the best right wingers/forwards of the past decade, somewhere below Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.
A mixed record
It’s also possible to say that he is overrated, or somewhat over-hyped, as a player. He’s never made it out of the Round of 16 of the Champions League, and his international tournaments, bar a few wonderful performances, have been underwhelming. And, unlike Neymar and Ronaldo and Messi and some others, Hazard’s value isn’t dictated on goals and assists, but in the ability to effortlessly and relentlessly dribble and progress the ball up the pitch. Since he isn’t shooting the ball, or creating chances, and since dribbling is inherently riskier than passing, when Hazard’s form dips slightly, he looks terrible (see 2015-16 season with Chelsea).
This season for Chelsea, despite playing in a defensive, restricted season, and being the team’s only consistent attacking output, Hazard has good form heading into the World Cup, having scored 17 goals and provided 7 assists in all competitions, plus the game-winner versus Manchester United in the FA Cup final. In a talented and ideal Belgium squad to showcase his talents, and a possible move to Real Madrid on the horizon, it might be time that the 27 year old to reaches his ceiling and leads Belgium to a World Cup win.
Limited by the team?
The stocky elegance, the methodical aggression at which Hazard attacks defenders is what makes him so hypnotic and exciting to watch. It’s like watching Fiat wiggle its way through a derby crash. With most dribblers, even the best, the odds of making a successful dribble are roughly 64% and a dribble occurs roughly 3 times per game. With Hazard, the odds of success are 80.4%, and he dribbles about 6 times per game. Only Neymar, Messi, and Douglas Costa are in the range of volume and efficiency as Hazard, and no one combines the two quite so well. He’s liquid smoke on the pitch. He wriggles one way, steps the other, and then suddenly his defenders are twisted into a pretzel and Hazard is gone, off to torture the next unlucky defender and embarrass him as well.
The teams surrounding Hazard, however, have been less than ideal. The Chelsea team he joined in 2012 was an aging, slow squad of players who were past their primes (like Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard), and under managers such as Jose Mourihno and Antonio Conte, the team could be best describe as pragmatic and hardworking. Now, only Hazard, N’golo Kante, and Thibaut Courtois are players that would fetch +50 million dollars in a transfer fee, and Chelsea has bizarrely sold players like Diego Costa, Mo Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku for far less than what they were worth. The defensive minded approach over the past 6 years have forced Hazard to do everything offensively. This season, he is first in goals, third in assists, first in dribbles, second in key passes, and first in times fouled.
Being the “main man” tag wears on certain players. Contemporaries like Ronaldo and Messi thrive on that pressure of having to perform, game after game, with a target on their back, knowing that the opponents are going to hack and claw at them at every opportunity. Others just aren’t suited for the role; they don’t shrink from the spotlight, but they don’t embrace it either. Hazard seems like one of those players. He has topped 20 goals in a season only once, and 10 assists twice, and both signature seasons in the Premier League – 2014-15 and 2016-17 – occurred when Diego Costa was leading the line and doing villainous, Diego Costa things. If Real Madrid, or another super-club, bought Hazard, would he thrive under the increased pressure? What would happen when he has to do the defensive work for Rolando instead of his teammates covering for him?
The ideal opportunity to showcase his talents
The World Cup is a terrible, awful way to evaluate players, teams, and systems. Small sample sizes (7 games!), players unaccustomed to certain systems and unfamiliar with their teammates, and the unusual schedule (in the summer, three days rest max) often to lead to rather irrational and shortsighted decisions (see, Renato Sanches, among others). Still, the best and the brightest, even if undermanned or ill suited squads, find ways to win and succeed.
Belgium is not an undermanned or ill suited squad. Their starting 11 is a match for nearly every single other team in the tournament, and a perfect vehicle for Hazard to display his talents. Romelu Lukaku, much like Diego Costa, will force both opposition center backs to pay attention to him, while Kevin De Bruyne will drift between the lines and provide killer passes to supply the forward line. A solid defensive structure revolving around Jan Vertoghen, Toby Aldierwield, and Chelsea teammate Courtais will keep balls out of Belgium’s net. And Hazard is the one-on-one/secondary creator that, depending on match up/formation will either finish or create the attack moves Belgium displays this summer.
Hazard is now 27 years old, firmly in the prime of his career, and this World Cup could not have come at a better time to showcase his talents. Messi and Ronaldo are still the best players in the world, but for the first time in a while the finish line is in sight; Ronaldo in particular doesn’t exert the same influence over the pitch as he once did. We will finally be able to answer the question: How good is Eden Hazard?