Last season, Eden Hazard endured arguably the most difficult time of his career.
After a brilliant 2014/15 campaign, the Belgian failed to replicate the qualities that earned him the PFA Player of the Year award.
Hazard’s struggles led to him being dropped by manager Jose Mourinho in October, with Mourinho’s replacement Gus Hiddink then describing Hazard as being in a ‘difficult situation’.
The worry of such an exciting talent not fulfilling his potential was real.
Now, over a year since being left out of the Chelsea side, Hazard is the catalyst behind such a stunning change of fortunes for the Blues.
And there was no better evidence of the resurgence of the Belgian than Chelsea’s 5-0 hammering of Everton on Saturday. Hazard produced one of the performances of the season.
Not only did Hazard score twice and make an assist, the 25-year-old also completed the most attacking third passes (33) and crosses (3) in the match. He played like a man with a point to prove.
“Eden Hazard played an impressive game,” said Chelsea boss Antonio Conte after the match. “We all know he is a talented player. I see he is working a lot for the team and his team-mates are very happy for this. He must continue – he is showing his talent in every game.”
Joie de vivre
Hazard’s rediscovery of his joie de vivre has, in the process, produced impressive numbers.
In addition to being the highest scoring midfielder in the league this season (7 goals), Hazard ranks second in terms of most successful dribbles (45).
“When he is in form, he is a joy to watch,” Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports. “He sets the tempo. He lifts the Chelsea players. Every time he gets the ball, you feel something is going to happen.”
The contrast to last season is stark. It took until late April for Hazard to score his first league goal of the campaign.
In addition, he was only 12th on the list of most dribbles per game on average (4.6). Whether Hazard’s heart was not in it for Chelsea last season is anyone’s guess. Yet Conte deserves considerable credit for reigniting his key attacker’s hunger to reproduce his best form again.
Hazard is currently on the best goalscoring run of his career, and a key element to his increased success on that front has been his willingness to shoot more. Hazard’s average of 3.3 shots per game this season is his highest average since arriving at Stamford Bridge.
The Belgian believes his improved selfishness in front of goal has been important to his success.
“I try to shoot [more],” Hazard revealed in a recent interview. “People talk to me and say, ‘You don’t shoot enough.’ Now I try to shoot a lot because if you don’t shoot you can’t score. I don’t know if the ball will go in but I have more chance if I shoot. This is my job.”
In addition, the added responsibility of being Chelsea’s chief creator is something Hazard is thriving on in this impressive Chelsea side. Conte’s new 3-4-3 system has allowed Hazard to play a more central role in Chelsea’s attack – something the former Lille man is delighted with.
“I play more inside the pitch and I don’t stay wide [in the 3-4-3],” explained Hazard after Chelsea’s 3-0 home victory over Leicester. “I play this system with the Belgian side. We have more freedom and we can win the ball back. It is good for us.”
Although Hazard has been criticised before for not offering enough support defensively, the cover provided by wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses has given him the license to focus more on what he does best – attacking.
“I don’t need to defend against the right-back, because Marcos Alonso is there,” said Hazard. “I just focus on staying in my position. And when I have the ball I have more freedom and can go where I want to go, and be decisive.”
Encouraging for Chelsea
Every team needs their star players to perform when it counts.
While Chelsea’s defence and wing backs are receiving much praise, it has been the stunning return to form of Hazard that has offered the most encouragement.
And if Hazard can continue his excellent displays on a consistent basis, Chelsea will be a hard team to stop this season.
Written by Sean Wilson
Follow Sean on Twitter @WilsonFC2012
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