The land of make believe is a glorious place, a land long believed to be only a mere myth where magic happens and wild dreams come true. To go against virtual impossibility is blasphemy and the wages of realism is death.
Given what has transpired in the 2015/16 Barclays Premier League season, perhaps such a place might just exist after all. This fantasy league continues with Leicester City’s spell over the expected, but mostly underwhelming, challengers taking longer to wear off than most had imagined. West Ham, having employed some French wizardry, seems to always have a trick up their sleeves and is surprisingly in the hunt for a top four place as well. Liverpool should probably be granted pardon given their recent change in puppeteer but what of Chelsea? Why has nothing seemed to work for the Champions this season and what of their chief magician and 2014/15 Player of the Season, Eden Hazard? Popular demand would apparently have him elsewhere next season due to his poor performances but what’s popular isn’t particularly accurate or rather…fair. Throw the emotion of die-hard fans into the cauldron and you undoubtedly possess a recipe for disaster. As that emotion is cast aside for the moment, a just assessment of his season is the least Hazard deserves before any effigies are burnt.
The once spellbinding attacking midfielder that bamboozled defenders with his pace and unpredictability seems to now be reduced to a signature move of teleportation from football matches. Much has been said of his disappearing acts across the season and his demeanor of disinterest as rumours heat up about his departure. With reported interest from Paris Saint Germain and Real Madrid, you can’t blame fans from feeling uneasy, angry, and seemingly resigned to life after Eden. His controversial half-time jersey swap with PSG winger Angel Di Maria certainly did him no favors in extinguishing any fires. However, is this really about Hazard’s presence in games? It’s important to grasp some context into Chelsea season so far for a better understanding.
Feeling the effects of a stunted rest period in the summer, Chelsea and Hazard looked tepid against Arsenal in the season opening Community Shield defeat. Some even say there might still be traces of Eden’s DNA left in Hector Bellerin’s pocket. It changed nothing. Chelsea were favourites to retain their title and were expected to take the season by storm. Following a humiliating loss to Manchester City and a significant amount of dropped points along the way so early in the season, people began to notice that something was really off. Perhaps the signs were there into the back end of last season but it certainly didn’t apply to Hazard. Meanwhile, Chelsea began to eke out 1-goal margin victories much like what Leicester is doing now, multiple players lost their form. Fabregas, Costa and Matic were the among the key players culpable but injury did play its part as did the more conservative approach from Mourinho to close things out. What remained consistent throughout was Hazard and his creative displays led the team forward despite the ineptness of others.
Fast forward to this season and no one really took Chelsea by the reigns for the first few months. The key players all crashed and apparently, the insurance of a solid defense hadn’t been renewed. Only Willian could really hold his head high after an impressive run in the Champions League group stages but the team was horrible overall. The defense and midfield pivot gifted chance after chance and clear cut chances in open play were few and far between when going forward. With little creative influence coming from the pivot with Fabregas, the main link to Diego Costa, the Chelsea striker also lost his effectiveness and the sharp movement that once wreaked havoc with central defenders all but gone. In the midst of this storm, Hazard would very much need to replicate his ship-steering form of seasons past…a feat he could not achieve. His slump resulted in a once certain starting spot capsizing with newly signed Pedro being added to the squad, not to mention the injuries that have crept in and sabotaged potential chances of him regaining form.
Roll the tape even further and Chelsea have now exited crisis mode and Hazard, returning from injury, played his part in their resurgence under Guus Hiddink breaking his long-standing goal drought in the FA Cup in the process. His brilliance, though present in small doses early on in the season (the game against Arsenal stands out) began to have some more regularity as Chelsea began to look like a team again raising their dismal odds in a looming Champions League knockout tie versus Paris Saint Germain. Eden had a decent showing with a few bright moments as well as dull ones resolving to a feeling of ambivalence. A Hazard on peak form would have done better but solace can be taken in that Chelsea is simply inferior to the French champions. That tie also bought yet another injury, an apparently ongoing one, to his hip which has sidelined him to this day and Chelsea has not looked the same since. Something has been missing from the table.
Make no mistake; what hasn’t been brought the table at all is goals. Hazard has been horrid at finding the net this season and no Premier League goals since May 3rd last year is unacceptable by any measure. For a player that has been securing double digits for the past couple seasons, zero so far in the league, is bad…really bad. As the scope is expanded, statistics becoming useful in analysing his average output.
His shots taken per 90 minutes have decreased dramatically. Approximately two per game would be expected judging from his past seasons and this season has seen that number almost cut in half which speaks volumes, not to mention the accuracy. Hazard was never a prolific goal scorer (he’d need to shoot more than he typically does to achieve that) but his confidence in front of goal has clearly been shattered this season and it’s also reflected in his taking on of defenders which is often a precursor to him pulling the trigger. He isn’t doing it as much as he used to and his success rate has also taken a hit. When comparing him to other goal hungry forwards that tend to cut in on their stronger foot and go for the shot, something that he himself did fairly regularly, that element to his game is now akin to spotting a shooting star. Finding his feet sooner rather than later, in that regard, needn’t be reiterated.
Hazard 15/16 vs 14/15 (Graphic Courtesy of Squawka.com)
The buck does not stop with him, however. It’s important to consider the other factors that might have an effect on the regularity of Hazard’s shots. Chelsea is a team that consists of more than one player and the system implemented plays apart in how many chances are created (see Manchester United). Certain players are tasked with key roles in the build-up play and if the components aren’t effective the team will suffer. Cesc Fabregas was at the heart of Chelsea’s dominance last season and has found back his best form since the turn of the year but was a shadow of himself for the better part of 2015 (including last season). Oscar has been a picture of inconsistency since his arrival at Chelsea and it shouldn’t be surprising if he’s moved on in summer. Pedro hasn’t had the best first season and should be looking to acclimatise fully in the near future. Only Willian can really cover himself in any glory this season (though his performances have been somewhat blown out of proportion due to the relatively low performance level of others). Overall, it hasn’t been a good time for the Chelsea midfield and these are the players that also need to be held accountable for the attacking prowess of the team. Where does Eden fall among these players?
The stats paint a picture that perhaps it isn’t as ugly as most would have it. Though his dribbling hasn’t been at its lethal best, he still remains the club’s most nimble outlet having 3.27 take-ons per 90 with Willian in second at 2.77. Pedro has a respectable total and it’s seems to be a set in stone that Oscar doesn’t beat players very often. What Oscar does do, however, is shoot a lot and it’s disappointing that he hasn’t amassed the goals to go along with his trigger happiness. Pedro, being an innate forward, is up there with him. Hazard, a deep lying player in Fabregas has the same…ridiculous.
Willian’s situation as Chelsea’s best player is peculiar. His free kick goal quota has now dried up which was his main outlet for goals. His shot count is still underwhelming which points to the need for him to be more lethal in open play which was a sentiment left in the suggestion box since his first season at the club. It is on that premise of open play that chance creation should be examined.
With Willian on set piece duty and Fabregas as his deputy, garnering chances from this is a bonus when compared with players such as Oscar, Hazard and Pedro who only rely on open play. Willian leads the way with Hazard only falling just behind. Cesc Fabregas’ numbers are still some way off from what he achieved last season but he is improving as the season goes along which is great news to the fans. Pedro alongside him maintains a very respectable position as before and Oscar again falls behind and one is left to wonder what he excels in if he can’t find the net on a regular basis from his shots. What this boils down to is that Hazard remains Chelsea’s main creative outlet from open play…shocking! Add in the fact that he leads the attacking midfielders in the amount of passes made then it’s clear that it’s not really about Hazard’s involvement in the run of play. He is still very instrumental in Chelsea’s build up play and this is reflected in how Chelsea often play without him in recent times. In their FA Cup exit to Everton, it seemed as if Chelsea had no clue how to put together a proper attack. Without Hazard, Chelsea loses a bit of control in possession with one less ball handler in the team as well creativity in open play. Without Willian, the next best alternative, it didn’t really come as a surprise that their performance away at Swansea over the weekend left much to be desired as well. Pedro and Oscar, normally peripheral figures in the build-up, tasked with running the attack simply won’t be able to adequately provide the same transitions from defense into meaningful attack where a proper chance is actually created with a shot on goal. Pedro’s strong points lie with his running off the ball into space and Oscar strengths lie with his work rate or something…not exactly the bedrock of footballing domination.
It really just seems as if Hazard’s cloak of invisibility is fuelled by the ball not appearing in the net. It wouldn’t be surprising to witness a feast over a terrible performance where he scored a hat trick and people call it his best game of the season. Such is the world we live in today but that’s a story for another day.
Table courtesy of Eplindex.com (Jan 1, 2016)
The picture becomes even more clear when other BPL teams are brought into the frame. Rewind the clock to New Year’s Day, at a time where Chelsea were 14th and still in a state of emergency, and Hazard is second in terms of the rate of open play chance creation only to be bettered by a clairvoyant in Mesut Ozil. All of these players have gotten their fair share of praise at some point in time this season. One wonders if similar numbers would incur the same reaction with a sane defense, decent Fabregas and firing Costa. Fortunes would surely be different.
For a player that stacks up creatively against the league’s best, it’s rather unfortunate that Hazard has often been labeled the worst among Chelsea’s attackers and dragged through the mud…but it’s understandable. He may not be tasked with scoring 30 goals a season, but much more is expected of a man who was their second top scorer last season and first the season before. When you’re held to a higher standard, and when you’ve effectively led your team’s attack for the past two years, anything less than top class is simply not good enough and zero BPL goals is way below that and impossible to ignore. Chelsea may not have much to play for anymore with the season nearing its close and Hazard’s current injury may have him out for a few weeks. Nevertheless, Hazard should be keen on at least reminding the fans, and Antonio Conte, what he’s really capable of in the little time that remains. Chelsea won’t be looking to stay out of Europe for very long and the same applies to Eden and his form. He still is an amazing footballer and will be a vital part of their revival…if he stays, of course.