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One year ago today, Chelsea had all but unraveled. The Blues were in sixteenth place in the Premier League at the time. They sat only three minuscule points outside of the relegation zone, and their chance at a Champions League spot had all but evaporated. For a Chelsea team that hadn’t finished outside the top six spots in 19 seasons, the dumpster fire of a start to their Premier League campaign served as a sharp punch to the gut.
As Chelsea crumbled, their star man, Eden Hazard, disappeared completely. It’s rare that an established player endures such an intense dry spell without either a managerial switch or a transfer that forces them to learn and adjust to a new system. However, in former Chelsea manager José Mourinho’s system and trademark 4-2-3-1 formation, Hazard was tasked with far more defensive responsibility than he had previously been assigned; a duty that contributed greatly to Hazard’s struggles.
Though Hazard excelled in the “everybody defends, always” system on his way to becoming the PFA Player of the Year during his second season under The Special One, this defensive responsibility caught up with him and contributed to his poor form. In a vacuum, this type of system does not typically present a problem as plenty of teams have successfully implemented tactical schemes requiring a high defensive work-rate. But Chelsea’s, and in turn Hazard’s, unique situation during and after the 2014-2015 season amplified these problems going forward.
Chelsea employed a limited rotation of players despite playing a very large number of games, using only 22 total players en route to their 2014-15 Premier League title.1 Eden Hazard was one of only three Chelsea players to start every league game that season, roaming the pitch for 3,372 minutes, which placed him second amongst Premier League midfielders. Combine 3,372 grueling minutes with 14 additional appearances in other competitions and you are left with a player pushed to the edge of his physical precipice.2
But this was only half of the equation. Mourinho pushed the start of the 2015-2016 preseason back a full two weeks in order to help the Chelsea players recover from their backbreaking season. However, Mourinho’s act of grace left only 25 days of preseason training for the Chelsea players to achieve match-fitness before their first league game arrived. And it just wasn’t enough; Hazard and the rest of the Chelsea squad were not in shape. Their 25 days and three underwhelming preseason games had left them far from fit, and the Blues were seen sputtering out the gate.
“We made a decision which was to give the players a proper holiday. At that moment we knew the start was not going to be the same kind of start we had last year. . . Last year we started early, we played a lot of matches before the start of the season, and we had a fantastic start, but I think we paid for that quick start at the end of the season.”
– José Mourinho, former Chelsea manager
It’s easy to criticize Mourinho’s preseason decision now, but the limited player rotation and defensive requirements of his players left him without much choice on how to structure the training sessions. Immediately the 2014-2015 PFA Player of the Year became invisible on the pitch, fading into obscurity as every last drop of confidence drained from the young Belgian. He became the chief scapegoat for Chelsea’s struggles, with many counting down the days to his seemingly-inevitable summer transfer. And despite Hazard’s 2014-2015 success, it would be hard to blame both Chelsea management and supporters for welcoming a change. Hazard scored only four goals3 and registered three assists4 throughout Chelsea’s turbulent Premiership campaign. His “hidden” statistics underwent a distinct downturn as well, with Hazard creating 20% less chances and attempting just over half as many shots per game.
Mourinho was sacked just before Christmas as Chelsea sat only a few points outside the relegation zone, and former Netherlands manager Guus Hiddink was appointed to fill the vacancy. While Chelsea experienced a slight uptick in their play under Hiddink, Hazard did not follow suit; the damage had already been done, his confidence had been shattered.
Those troubles from last season seem rather distanced as we fast forward to present day. Eden Hazard is back to playing some of the best soccer of his young, but impressive, career. While his quality performances for Belgium at EURO 2016 served as building blocks, a tactical shift under Antonio Conte has renewed his creative spark and allowed him to focus his energy on tormenting opposing defenses. After a lackluster start to the season employing the 4-1-4-1, Conte switched to the 3-4-3. Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation is very similar to the 3-5-2 formation employed by Conte with both Juventus and the Italian national team. The setup emphasizes chance creation from the wings while maintaining a solid defensive structure.
Most importantly for Hazard, Conte’s 3-4-3 relieved the speedy winger from the majority of his defensive duties. In Mourinho’s system, Hazard’s defensive responsibilities often forced him to receive the ball in less-advanced areas of the pitch after tracking an opposing fullback towards his own goal. This hindered his ability to spark Chelsea’s attack with an aggressive run, and made it more difficult to establish any semblance of an attacking rhythm. While the 4-2-3-1 necessitated that Hazard continuously venture up and down the left side of the pitch tracking the opposition’s wide players, this job is now being handled by the left wing back in Conte’s 3-4-3, Spaniard Marcos Alonso. Though relatively unknown, Alonso has played a significant role in facilitating Hazard’s resurgence. By dealing with any opposition players foraying down the left flank, he frees up Hazard to remain in a more forward position and maintain pressure on opposing defenses.
In fact, former Chelsea fan-favorite “Wee” Pat Nevin pointed out that Hazard has actually accumulated an average position further up the pitch than central striker Diego Costa.
“The reason for [Hazard’s renewed success] is Marcos Alonso’s position at wing-back. It means Hazard doesn’t need to track back anywhere near as much as he did last season. He’s totally free to go forward and when you do that to greater players, they absolutely love it.”
– Pat Nevin, former Chelsea winger
In addition to residing further up the pitch in Conte’s 3-4-3, Hazard is now free to roam the attacking third. Mourinho’s left back of choice, César “Dave” Azpilicueta, typically preferred defending to attacking and did not offer much width going forward. This essentially glued Hazard to the left sideline in order to provide the necessary width and stretch the opposing defense. However, Alonso’s proficiency in advancing into wider attacking areas (notice the heat map below from a typical game for Alonso) offers Hazard the freedom to drift towards the center of the pitch where he is most comfortable.
Hazard is not naturally a wide player and has actually spent much of his career in a fluid “number 10” role for both club and country. While he does not play the “10” in Conte’s tactical system, he has the freedom to occupy this position at any point by cutting or drifting in from the left-side channel. This opportunity to occupy areas closer to goal, as he did for former club team Lille and currently does for Belgium, amplifies Hazard’s already extensive dribbling, playmaking, and goalscoring abilities.
The Chelsea winger is among the most technically skilled dribblers in the world. He is nearly impossible to dispossess due to his remarkably-low center of gravity and an unrivaled ability to keep the ball seemingly glued to his nimble feet.
Combine this close-control with Hazard’s willingness to take on defenders and you’re left with a player tailor-made to beat opposing players off the dribble and create space for himself and his teammates. When Hazard cuts in from the left side, it forces a number of opposing players to make important decisions, which leads to many wrong decisions, too.
Initially covered by the right fullback, as Hazard carries the ball towards the middle of the pitch he ventures into “no man’s land” where it is not readily apparent who should mark the marauding winger. This uncertainty between the right fullback, central defenders, and nearby midfielders allows Hazard to continue his migration towards the penalty box. By forcing defenders to confront him and pulling them out of position, Hazard’s movement opens new channels in the defensive line for his teammates to exploit.
From there, often all it takes is a nifty pass and a cool finish to find the back of the net.
And if the defense decides to maintain its shape and allows him enough space to continue advancing towards goal, he is more than happy to finish off the play himself.
Generally known as a selfless player, Hazard has actually attempted more shots per game under Conte than he has during any other season at Chelsea. Though the increase in shots per game is partially due to his more advanced positioning and freedom of movement, it stems largely from Antonio Conte’s encouragement for Hazard to be more selfish and pull the trigger when the situation arises.
Hazard’s spike in shot attempts has translated into more goals, without a notable decrease in scoring efficiency. In fact, his goals-per-shot ratio has returned to pre-slump levels. His unrestrained role in Chelsea’s system allows him to reside closer to the opposing penalty box, earning higher-percentage chances rather than settling for shots from distance. Thanks to tight dribbling, an arsenal of moves, and a clinical right foot, Hazard is able to convert a high percentage of his chances.
Though Hazard is capable of many tricks due to his nifty footwork, no soccer player has perfected the one-on-one hesitation move quite like Eden Hazard. Perfectly balanced, with the ball seemingly fixed to his foot, he glides through the air offering no indication of where his next touch will travel. At this point the defender is putty in Hazard’s hands, and with a quick nudge along with a flick of his right boot Hazard sends the ball skidding into the back of the net.
A slight variation of Hazard’s trademark hesitation move involves what amounts to a faked shot while on the run. Essentially serving as a pump fake, this variation keeps defenders and goalkeepers off balance, often causing them to go to ground in attempt to block a shot that never comes, and opening up shooting lanes or biding time for a teammate to locate a pocket of space in the defense.5
Though Eden Hazard’s performances have fluctuated over the past two seasons, he seems to have finally steadied the ship under Antonio Conte’s retooled Chelsea system. With seven goals and an assist through 13 Premier League games and an October Player of the Month award under his belt, Hazard looks primed to guide Chelsea towards Premier League title contention. And by not running a revitalized Hazard into the ground on defense, Conte’s 3-4-3 sets Hazard up for long-term success by allowing Chelsea’s number 10 to focus primarily on what he does best: Cementing himself in the nightmares of opposing defenders.