Any doubts about the importance of Eden Hazard to Chelsea's attack this season were quickly put to bed with a phenomenal performance against Sunderland.
The Belgian attacker finished the match with two goals and an assist, and drew incredibly high praise from both Jose Mourinho and Sunderland manager Gus Poyet.
Poyet declared Hazard as "unplayable" and stated that he couldn't "remember a player performing at that level against me"; Mourinho (who isn't normally one to highlight an individual performance) simply remarked that "this was his best performance for me" (as per The Guardian).
Hazard would finish the match with two goals and an assist to his name, but not even that tells the full story of his importance and significance against Sunderland.
Let's break down the film and see just how dynamic he truly was on the night.
36'—GOAL (Hazard); Chelsea lead 2-1
A contender (at the time) for Goal of the Season, Hazard's run down the left wing is seemingly credited with a great cut back on to his right foot and a poor defensive read on the overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta.
The Belgian international wins the ball from Fernando Torres' header and then isolates Phil Bardsley on the right—something that was compounded by Azpilicueta's run. However, the real difference in Hazard finding as much space as he did at the top of the box wasn't the overlapping run of the defender but rather a brash and defensively unaware run back into defense by Craig Gardner.
Gardner tracks back here but what he doesn't do is run where he's needed. Both Frank Lampard and Willian are unmarked at the top of the box, and it's clear that Hazard's first thought is to get the ball there—especially since Gardner doesn't pick either of them up.
Yet what Gardner's run does (in trying to get back and pick up Hazard so Bardsley can pick up Azpilicueta) is act as a screen between the two players.
As Hazard cuts on to his right, Bardsley is suddenly nowhere near his man.
Both Lampard and Willian are still free, but by now, it's clear that Hazard's best opportunity is to get the shot off. He's gone from having two defenders in his face to none, and his right foot shot sizzles its way into the bottom corner of Vito Mannone's net for a splendid goal.
It looks like just an attacking masterstroke helped by Azpilicueta, but it's more than that. Hazard does exceptionally well to realise when the situation has been turned in his favour by Gardner's poor run back in defense, and his fleet-footed dribbling skills allow him to take full advantage of the situation. And in the end, the result is most likely better than what it would have been had he passed it to Lampard.
Additional Defensive Attention
Having now scored a goal and set up another, it was clear to Sunderland that the Belgian was going to be their most pressing concern in defense throughout the night.
Their plan was simple: put more men on him to shut down his influence.
We can see that clearly in the moments right before half-time. Instead of Hazard having time to run down the wing and isolate defenders, the back-line has now accommodated so that the winger can tuck himself in tight to the line as an additional defender.
That allows either the right-back or the central defender nearest to Hazard (in this case it's the right-back) to sit back and play an almost "sweeper" role on him.
The "sweeper's" ultimate aim? Not allow Hazard to get in behind.
62'—GOAL (Hazard); Chelsea lead 3-2
Such instructions were no doubt reinforced at half-time by Sunderland, and they came out with a similar defensive scheme to try and stop Hazard in the second half.
They always had a runner on him—tracking his movement in both attack and defense—and again looked to use the winger closest to whatever side he was on to help out in defense. Yet, as would soon be clear, such a plan simply made it easier for Hazard to play others in behind.
The image below shows Bardsley with Emanuele Giaccherini tracking back together to try and shut down Hazard on the left wing. And shut him down they do!
However, what Hazard does so well here is simply keep the play alive. The two Sunderland players most certainly have him shut down—there really isn't anywhere that Hazard can go here except for an incredibly unlikely split of the two defenders—but the Belgian corrals it long enough to allow the play to develop. Frank Lampard makes a great run into the box, and Hazard plays him in.
That might not have seemed like a great play by Hazard but it was. He had nowhere to go and no real options available to him, but he managed to keep the play alive and keep the Blues in possession.
Lampard then plays a lovely back-heel to Hazard, who collects the ball and runs to his right, and while the move might seem glorious, again, it's a defensive lapse from the Black Cats that allows it to happen. Giaccherini has allowed Hazard to get goal-side of him here (as Bardsley makes the right move in peeling off to try and win the ball), and it's something that he simply shouldn't have let happen.
Ever since the days of child football, coaches instruct their players to get goal-side in defense, and it's clear why. From here, Hazard is able to skip away from the summer signing (who doesn't want to give away a penalty), and the distance is suddenly noticeable.
By the time Hazard shoots, the gap is simply astounding.
Four Sunderland defenders have essentially sprinted back into the box to try and block the shot, but there's no real point—Hazard has too much time to pick his shot.
Had Giaccherini tracked him all the way though, and made life difficult for him in the first place by staying goal-side, the chance certainly wouldn't have been as forthcoming as it was.
Brilliant from Hazard to keep the play alive, and recognise when it instantly turned in his favor; poor from Sunderland in letting him receive the back-heel.
Hazard simply wanted the ball more, and he got it.
Hazard's Complete Role vs. Black Cats
We could talk on and on about the goals here, but what was perhaps most important was the role that the Belgian player off the ball—making space for others.
Juan Mata was played in on goal in the first half by Willian (and should have scored) because of the run that Hazard made away from goal at the same time. Torres was presented with a free run at goal on the counterattack and then had a shot parried straight to him (which he somehow missed) because Hazard's run attracted all of the defensive attention.
The examples go on and on, and it simply goes to show how complete a game it was from Hazard.
I often like to think of good players as the ones who can make good things happen for themselves with the ball, but great players as those who can make things happen for others without the ball. The great players are that much of a threat to the defense that, regardless of the situation or what might be going on, they manage to occupy a defender's mind and force them into a lapse in concentration.
As such, they can create chances without even touching the ball, and that was certainly true of the Belgian winger against Sunderland's struggling defense.
Statistically, it was a perfect night from Hazard.
His dribbling skills (as shown by Squawka) were simply staggering.
His defensive work-rate (something which Mourinho has berated his attacking players for this season) was deceptively good, winning several tackles and interceptions.
After sprinting up field moments before, Hazard was quick to track back in defense when he was needed—this chance showing the ground that he made up on Bardsley to prevent him from running into the box or crossing into the area as well. Those are the type of moments that so often go unnoticed in a game, but not in this one.
Hazard made all take notice with everything he did.
Even in the times when he didn't touch the ball at all.
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