When Hazard danced like Neymar and Messi: that’s how it was at Chelsea when Madrid signed him

There is a video from November 2017 in which Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool manager, summarizes the type of footballer that Real Madrid signed when they signed Eden Hazard. The German talks about Conte’s Chelsea game after drawing against them at Anfield (1-1): “They defended far back, and then they gave the ball to Eden Hazard … Wow! To be honest, it’s not bad, ”he says while he can’t contain a huge, wondering smile. “I would say that it is not the most gratifying job to have to defend just one. With a second player it is already somewhat easier. With a third party, you already have good options ”.

Hazard was then in one of the most brazen and lethal moments of his career. In the 2017-18 season, he emerged as the best dribbler in Europe: in the Premier he tried eight times every 90 minutes and got away 76% of the time, according to Opta’s records. That summer, in Russia, he also finished as the best dribbler in the World Cup, where he reached the semifinals: he was successful 6.9 times every 90 minutes, ahead of Messi’s 5.8 and Mbappé’s 5.7.

He was the most elusive footballer in the world and Conte was happy: “In every game he finds a way to be decisive, to score or give an assist. I love that about him, and I ask him, because with a player with his talent it is important to ask him to be decisive in every game. If God gives you this talent, you must exploit it. ” But he believed Hazard should squeeze more: “Sometimes when Eden scores, he’s happy and then, if there is another opportunity, he prefers to give an assist instead of scoring twice. I see to [Cristiano] Ronaldo that if he scores once, he wants two, three, four. And the same Messi. So, yes, Eden can improve, ”it said. That season, the Belgian played 52 games for Chelsea, scoring 17 goals and providing 13 assists. After the World Cup, he and Real Madrid thought he would reach the Bernabéu, just as Cristiano left, but Marina Granovskaia, the English club’s general director, blocked his way.

The following season, his last at Stamford Bridge, he sharpened his threat even more: in the same 52 games he added 21 goals and 17 assists. The advanced statistical data processed by Driblab show that during his last year at Chelsea the threat posed by Hazard fell into the orbit of Neymar, Messi and Mbappé. It combined two characteristics as rare as they were appreciated. He often took the ball to the areas where it aroused a greater sense of goal danger, with passing or driving. In addition, he participated directly in the goals, scoring or assisting. That year there were also players who participated in goals or who brought the ball closer to the goal, but very few who combined both. That was the footballer who signed Madrid.

During his last year in London, in which his contribution to the goal rose, his dribbling success dropped from 76% to 63%, but still he still surpassed Messi and Neymar. And he tried as hard as they did. Hazard always detected a carioca vein, as if listening to the same music. He explained it like this a few months later, before making his debut at the Bernabéu in the Champions League: “When we play together I feel good with them. [los brasileños]. Maybe I can also feel a bit Brazilian, ”he said.

In addition to his skill in dribbling, the footballer hired by Madrid highlighted another trait that advanced metrics capture: he did not tremble in the hottest areas of the field. In his last year in London, he appeared among the players in Europe who most often touched the ball in the opposite area, at the height of Cristiano and Cavani, for whom that place is their natural habitat. Not only that: he was also among those who most often carried the ball to that place. And in that he stood out above the creatures of the area and the great creators of danger, such as Messi and Neymar.

That cold blood to step on and combine on incandescent ground outlined him as especially suitable to mix with Karim Benzema. Hazard himself looked like this, as he explained in his presentation at the Bernabéu: “I think the connection with Benzema can be very good,” he said. “We can already imagine the walls with Benzema. I hope there is a good connection on the field: that he scores goals and that I score goals, so that everyone is happy ”.

However, nothing of that has been glimpsed in the almost two years that Hazard has been at Madrid. Repeated injuries and relapses have caused him to miss more than fifty games. In addition to the difficulties for recovery that these repetitions entail, in the case of Hazard another aspect is added that can be counted: in his last season in the Premier he was the player who received the most fouls, 104, well above the second, Sadio Mané (64). The areas in which he moved and the threat he posed made him a favorite target of defenders, a trend that has grown throughout his career and that has risen even more when he arrived in Spain. If in his last year in England he received 3.4 fouls every 90 minutes, in his first in the League it was 3.9.

A few weeks ago, Vinicius Jr., another dribbler, told in an interview in EL PAÍS that it took him seven months to step back confidently after his ankle injury. That aspect, trust, is often mentioned from Valdebebas’s offices when they comment on what Hazard is missing to get back to the point where he was hired.

On Saturday, against Osasuna, the Belgian let out part of his old charm: those walls with Benzema that he imagined when he arrived, the danger within the area, a few drops of fantasy in a deep heel to an Asensio run. However, he still lacks something essential that Jorge Valdano pointed out during the television broadcast: “He is intervening a lot, but we have not seen him in what he handles best, dribbling,” he said.

Always under the spotlight of expectation, this Wednesday he returns to the place where he danced like Messi and Neymar, and where he left a collection of decisive afternoons. Like the one on May 3, 2015, which was six years old on Monday: he scored the goal that gave him his first Premier with Chelsea. The title was celebrated hugging Courtois and Azpilicueta, this Wednesday an obstacle in the band that he enjoys the most.

Sources and methodology. The data in the graphs are from companies specialized in advanced statistics Driblab Y Opt. The metrics are expressed per 90 minutes of play in the games of the five major European leagues of the 2018-2019 season, the last of Eden Hazard at Chelsea. The selection of players shown follows the criteria of including attacking players with more than 0.50 direct contributions to the goal (goals + assists) per 90 minutes.

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