When you’re dubbed “The Belgian Messi,” it’s safe to say that trying to live up to that tremendous hype is pretty much an impossibility. But Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is certainly giving it a go over at Stamford Bridge.
All comparisons to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi aren’t really fair to Hazard nor to Messi himself, but still, media and fans apparently have a knee-jerk reaction to tag young and promising attacking midfielders with similar games and bearing the same physical characteristics to Messi.
Although, in the end, he hardly had a Messi-like season for the Blues, Hazard did start out like a house on fire and almost occluded fellow AMF Juan Mata for Chelsea, although the quiet Spaniard ended up being named the club’s Player of the Year for a second straight season.
And deservedly so.
It’s hard to really pick at Hazard’s overall game—kicking deserving ball boys aside—but here are a couple of areas I think he can try to improve on this coming season.
Chelsea has a number of extremely talented attacking midfielders on its roster now. But none of them seem to possess either the on-the-field or off-the-field leadership skills one would like to see for a club who will be suffering a serious leadership vacuum in the coming years.
With José Mourinho now back in West London to lead the charge for Uncle Roman’s Flying Circus and Football Show, getting younger players like Mata, Hazard and David Luiz to become leaders is imperative for the Blues.
Now granted, doing so isn’t as easy as it seems on paper. The Old Guard (John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Čech and Ashley Cole) still deserves respect, so many new players are coming in and the language barriers between many of Chelsea’s players could be tricky.
Mata appears to be a natural leader with his play and presence, but the 25-year-old Spaniard is hardly the guy to look to for discipline or harsh words toward teammates on the pitch. And fellow AMFs Oscar, Victor Moses, Kevin De Bruyne and André Schürrle are all either too young, too new or not cut from the royal blue leadership cloth needed to help the Blues adjust in-game...for now.
And with so many talented younger guys in the Chelsea pipeline, having another young player to look up to and go to for advice could be crucial for their development.
With captain Terry and vice-captain Lampard on their last legs at Stamford Bridge and Mata usually as quiet as a Justin Bieber fan at a Metallica concert, having the 22-year-old Hazard evolve into a vocal leader on the pitch would serve the Europa League champions very well in the future.
So Eden, make your mama Carine proud and come out of your little Belgian shell a little bit more if you don’t mind, brother. Mata’s church-mouse silence is just a little bit too deafening.
Like Messi and tigers preying on future food in the jungle, Hazard is at his absolute best in the wide-open spaces.
And when he gets caught up on the sidelines or in a pack of defenders—despite his speed—his effectiveness and creativity become extremely limited. Part of the problem for Hazard, like Messi, is his somewhat diminutive size (Both playmakers are 5'7").
One way to avoid this in the future is in Chelsea’s tactical formations, something Mourinho can change to accommodate two adept midfielders like Hazard and Mata who possess very similar games.
Hazard can also help himself in this regard by trying to avoid the congestion in the box or near the sidelines before it actually happens. Easier said than done, but with The Great One now at SW6 and a year under his belt with the club, finding and creating those open spaces should become much easier.
Asking Eden Hazard to improve his passing is a bit like asking Jay-Z to improve his lyrics—but when you’re as good as he is at distributing the ball and you have even more weapons on offense to pass to, you can and should get better.
Although Chelsea played in a record number of games (69) last season, Hazard, who started 52 times, only ended up with 20 total assists and just 11 in English Premier League play. With his skills and pitch awareness, Hazard should have had closer to 30 assists overall and 20 in England’s top flight.
Now granted, being second on a club like Chelsea in assists is nothing to sneeze at and Hazard’s overall play was enough to make him a PFA Player of the Year candidate. But even he knows he can do better, as he copped to in a recent Daily Mail story.
“I had a lot of assists last season and a few goals, but the problem is that I tend to choose the beautiful option too often and dribble with the ball, when a different way might cause more damage," Hazard said.
And with a plethora of talented midfielders as well as strikers Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku to link up with, Hazard should reach those lofty 30/20 numbers in 2013-14. The deadly Belgian Hazard-Lukaku combination should be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Hazard ranked third for Chelsea in goals scored last season in Premier League play (9) behind Lampard (15) and Mata (12). He scored 14 overall. But like his assists total, this is another area he should improve on under Mourinho.
In that same Daily Mail piece, Hazard said he would be "going for the kill" in the EPL this season and has visions of breaking the league’s goal-scoring record.
"My dream is 50 or even 60 goals like [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo," he confidently said in the June article. "They have shown it is possible, so maybe I can do the same."
"Sometimes I lack the killer instinct, but I mean to change that. I need to shoot more, rather than look to do something that looks nice, and that is what I will be trying to do next season."
No doubt Mourinho has already told Hazard to shoot more, and a 20/20 (goals/assists) season may not be too far off in the future if it doesn’t happen this coming season for the young Blues phenom.
One area where Hazard can improve and help Chelsea out a bit is the invisible role—at least to the general public—he plays off the field as a teammate.
Signed by Chelsea last summer for £32 million from Lille in France's Ligue 1, Hazard can and should evolve into an ambassador for all of his other Belgian national teammates on Chelsea, including his little brother Thorgan along with Lukaku, De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois.
After all, who better to relay to his native countrymen who has the best pizza in London, what time and channel Big Brother is on and what’s the easiest traffic route to Cobham once they get situated to life in jolly old England?
Besides helping his Belgian brothers acclimate to life in London, should Hazard develop into a team leader the way Luiz and Gary Cahill seem now to be doing, he could help so many of the other young prospects.
It’s often these little things like relationships, team dynamics and stability in the managerial position that all add up to creating a winning environment—and eventually a club that can hope to make a run at the EPL title.
Becoming an off-the-field go-to guy and team leader would be a wonderful metamorphosis for the young caterpillar turning blue butterfly that is Eden Hazard.
Whether you choose to pronounce his name phonetically correctly (“edɛn azɑʁ”) or as it’s spelled, and generally accepted (“EDD-in HAZ-erd”), it’s entirely up to you, Bubba. All I know is whenever I hear an announcer pronouncing it “edɛn azɑʁ,” I end up reaching for French pastries and Roquefort cheese that just aren’t there.
This coming season should give Hazard the room to grow he needs. The year’s experience at Stamford Bridge can only help.
Another area—although not worth a slide to me—where Chelsea can use Hazard and get his confidence up is from the penalty spot. With Lampard aging and likely not to be an automatic starter from his now central midfield spot, Hazard can become one of Mourinho’s prime choices to try to convert from the spot as he did here for the Blues last season against Liverpool.
Hazard could probably add four to seven goals to his season totals on converted penalty kicks and with it, gain some valuable confidence in the process.
Should Hazard improve on most of the points listed in this slideshow, Chelsea could very well end up being one of the most feared clubs in Europe as they were the last time Mourinho called the shots in West London.
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