“You can see Eden is always involved, not calm and off during the game. He is always in the game and he’s always a point of reference for his team-mates,” said Antonio Conte in November 2016. “I think he’s fantastic at this. It’s great for his team-mates that when they want to pass the ball, he’s always in the right position to receive. It’s important to be involved for the whole game.”
For all the plaudits and gongs for N’Golo Kante, who was hardly an ill-deserving winner of the PFA Player of the Year award, it would be no controversy to call Eden Hazard Chelsea’s most important player. The Belgian scored 19% of all goals by Chelsea players in the Premier League last season, and created 20% of their chances too.
For all Kante’s – and David Luiz’s – impact defensively, it was the improvement in Chelsea’s attack that was most impressive. Conte’s first season at Stamford Bridge was also Chelsea’s highest-scoring league season since 2010. They actually conceded one more goal than in the title-winning season of 2014/15, but scored 12 more.
That was certainly Jamie Carragher’s view when writing his Daily Mail column at the end of last season. ‘Chelsea’s little general [Kante] was named the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year to complete an astonishing 12 months for the France midfielder,” Carragher wrote. ‘But this season I went for Eden Hazard. It’s perhaps a 50-50 call over who has had the biggest influence for Chelsea, but I just about favour Hazard.’
The most persuasive statistic is not Hazard’s goals or created chances – thought both obviously hold sway – but dribbles. He completed 143, the most of any Premier League player, and a slightly ridiculous 87 more than any other Chelsea teammate. To illustrate the importance of Hazard in Chelsea’s transition on the counter-attack, centre-forward Diego Costa was second on that dribble list.
Chelsea scored more counter-attacking goals than any other Premier League team last season, as Conte perfected the strategy with his switch to 3-4-3. The defence would sit deep, Kante would roam to win possession and, when Chelsea turned over the ball, everyone would look for Hazard.
In fact, Hazard is more than the most important member of Chelsea’s squad; he is their bellwether player. Starring roles in title victories were the bread of a sandwich containing a particularly unpleasant filling, as Hazard struggled with injury, form and confidence during 2015/16. Two games missed in December, three more in January and five missed over March and April. If that was a stop-start campaign, the emphasis was firmly on the former. Like Chelsea, when Hazard is good he is very, very good, but when he is bad he is abject.
The hope was that 2015/16 was an exception to the rule, a unique annus horribilis. As well as the hip and groin problems, reported interest from Real Madrid seemed to turn Hazard’s head, while his confidence suffered after the public spat between Jose Mourinho, Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn. Hazard was one of the three ‘rats’ called out by that famous banner, but there was a significant minority of supporters who backed Mourinho over the reigning Player of the Year.
If all that goodwill was regained – and more – last season, Hazard is now again left playing catch-up following title triumph. Having fractured his right ankle playing for Belgium in June, it required surgery that will rule Hazard out for at least the first month of the season.
The issue could be more long-term, with Hazard’s absence from Chelsea’s entire pre-season likely to make hitting the ground at sprinting speed almost impossible, particularly given Chelsea’s added workload of Champions League football.
“I’ve been out for a month, which is a long time,” Hazard said in February 2016. “Sometimes you can come back too quickly and you end up getting injured again.” Hazard is the type of player and personality who flourishes only when his body and mind are in harmony, one who – metaphorically at least – struggles to sprint from a standing start. That is not a criticism, merely a description.
Multiply the injury absence by three, and the problem is exacerbated; Conte simply cannot depend on the form of his most influential attacking player. Chelsea would be foolish to try.
This is why Conte is so adamant that further spending on Chelsea’s squad is required, even if those first-team squad members who have departed have already been upgraded. Champions League participation now combines with the inevitable complacency that arrives post-triumph and the mental and physical difficulties in pushing on once more. Going is always easier than going again. Until at least mid-September, Pedro and Willian are his only first-team options to play in the wide midfield role that is so crucial to their counter-attacking style.
Meanwhile, Hazard would be forgiven for cursing his misfortune. If the accusation is that he has not yet produced the consecutive seasons of astounding brilliance required to take him onto the highest plane of current players, it is fair criticism. Yet Hazard can only do so much. The danger of carrying a team’s attack to the title is that the responsibility can weigh heavily on the body.
Just as two years ago, Chelsea are left sweating on the form and fitness of the one player they can ill-afford to be without. Conte must hope Hazard’s and Chelsea’s fortunes are not so intrinsically linked in 2017.