Of the many questions about Eden Hazard—under-appreciated genius or indulged waster, saviour of Belgian football or obstacle to its success, victim of Jose Mourinho or a rat who undermined him—perhaps the most fundamental is whether he is a wide man or a central creator.
In an increasingly bifurcated world, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the solution to a problem may not lie at either end of a spectrum of possible answers but somewhere between the two poles: Hazard is thriving at Chelsea in what might perhaps best be described as an inside-left position.
It’s a role that has become increasingly common in recent seasons. It was probably Brendan Rodgers who began to popularise it in that brief spell at Liverpool when he adopted a 3-4-2-1 with Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho as the two. They occupied an awkward area for opponents, somewhere inside and in front of the full-backs but outside the holding midfielders.
The Liverpool comparison is intriguing. There are differences between Chelsea now and the Reds then, but that was probably the last time a change of style had such a dramatic impact on a team’s form as Liverpool, having played well but lost at Manchester United in December 2014, suddenly went on run in which they took 33 points from a possible 39.
Although that Liverpool experiment fell away, the problems defences have with players in those half-and-half positions have not. Pep Guardiola has done something similar with Manchester City, using Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva as “free eights.” Again, they seem like old-fashioned inside-forwards (the left of whom would traditionally wear eight) operating in that natural space that an opposing 4-2-3-1 would leave.
Chelsea and City use that inside-forward position in hard-pressing games, but it can also be of use for sides that sit off. The Serbia national team, for instance, who have started World Cup qualifying by taking seven points from three games, including a 3-2 win over Austria, use a 3-4-2-1 with Southampton’s Dusan Tadic and Hamburg’s Filip Kostic in the inside-forward roles, looking to spring counter-attacks and link up with the overlapping wing-backs.
Hazard, drifting in from that left-sided position that is neither on the wing nor central, has been devastating this season. He’s scored seven goals in the league already, which is three more than he got in the entirety of last season, and half of his highest tally in the Premier League, achieved in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
The goals are a reflection of how often he’s getting shooting opportunities. This season Hazard is averaging 3.3 shots per 90 minutes. Last season it was just 1.5, and he’s never had a full league season in which he’s averaged more than 2.3. A total of 1.7 of those shots per 90 minutes played have been on target, almost double his previous best for a full season.
“People told me I didn’t shoot enough,” Hazard told Het Laatste Nieuws (in Dutch). “I think now I try to shoot a lot, because if you don’t shoot you can’t score. I want to be the best. I try to reach this level. Like I said before I am playing now like when I was a kid.”
It’s not just the attacking threat, though. Hazard simply looks more alert, more focused than last season.
“Eden is playing fantastic football,” Antonio Conte said after Chelsea’s highly impressive 5-0 victory over Everton last week. “Is it showing his talent? The most important thing is that he is fantastic with the ball and without the ball. He is working very hard for the team. When team-mates see this type of commitment when they haven’t the ball I’m satisfied.”
He’s actually making fewer tackles per 90 minutes than he did last season while his interceptions are at their highest rate since 2012-13, but when it comes to pressing those statistics never quite tell the full story. Closing players down and inducing mistakes are also part of it, and it’s safe to assume that if the demanding Conte is happy with Hazard’s work rate then he is putting in the effort.
The question, then, is why he seemed so diffident last season. Mourinho’s last game as Chelsea manager, the 2-1 defeat away to Leicester, was notable, among other things, for his spat with Hazard after the Belgian insisted on coming off with a thigh injury.
Perhaps those injury problems sapped some of his enthusiasm. But given the form of Diego Costa, Pedro and Nemanja Matic this season, the suspicion must be that Conte has found a way of motivating his players in a way that Mourinho no longer could last season.
“Last season was difficult for me,” Hazard admitted in that HLN interview. “I’m not looking for excuses. For the first time in my career I did not reach my top level. Maybe I was a bit tired after the hundreds of games I’ve played since I was 16, mentally and physically. It was a little of this, a little of that.”
He didn’t name Mourinho, but it wasn’t hard to see who or what he was talking about. He, more than anybody else, seems to be thriving on Conte’s new mood of positivity. “You can win, but you have to show that you win with the idea of playing football,” Conte said. “We have good players with good talent, and it’s important to put these players in the best situation to exploit their talent.”
That suggests that the issue is both tactical and temperamental, that a sense of comfort in how they’re playing on the pitch and a sense of well-being off it have come together to inspire Chelsea to heights they never approached last season. Whatever the reason, Hazard, the footballer of the year in 2015-16, once again looks like one of the world’s best and Conte must take credit for that.
The tactical issue, though, reaches beyond Chelsea. Recent tactical trends have tended to be stylistic—the focus on radical possession stimulated by Guardiola’s Barcelona and then the hard pressing favoured by Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. It felt as though positional shifts were a thing of the past, but this re-invocation of the inside forward is a reminder that the hunt for space in football is eternal.
All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise indicated. All statistics obtained from WhoScored.com, unless otherwise stated.