Eden Hazard is loving his new Chelsea role but can he make it work? Ahead of Hazard’s reunion with Jose Mourinho, Adam Bate looks at why it could be a brilliant move…
Hinting wouldn’t do it justice. Pleading might be more accurate. But Eden Hazard has finally found a receptive audience. The Chelsea man’s longstanding and oft-stated desire to play as a No 10 is close to being realised under Antonio Conte.
The change of shape for the victories over Hull and Leicester has allowed Hazard to move from his station on the left wing to a more attacking position in support of – and frequently in advance of – centre-forward Diego Costa.
It’s similar to his role with Belgium, where the “full-backs run hard and create a lot of space” in which he can work. Marcos Alonso’s arrival opens up the same possibilities with his club. “It is a good system for Chelsea,” said Hazard. That it is also good for him is implicit.
It’s working so far. He’s responded with two impressive performances, causing problems for the opposition “more inside the pitch” as he put it. It’s not quite the ’10’ role that he craves but it’s close enough. “I think I have more freedom offensively,” he explained.
Giving Hazard freedom hasn’t always been the ideal solution for Chelsea. Harnessing his talent rather than unleashing it was Jose Mourinho’s focus. He sought to channel the player’s obvious ability and sculpt him into a reliable match-winner.
It wasn’t without its difficulties. Most notably, Mourinho was left frustrated by Hazard’s failure to track Juanfran during the second leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid in 2014. He re-emphasised his demands the following season.
A Premier League title and player of the year awards followed. Hazard took the plaudits but, in hindsight, it was a case of compromise rather than a complete rewiring. The issue re-emerged last season with Hazard dropped in October as Mourinho tried to regain control.
“I left out Hazard because we are conceding lots of goals,” said Mourinho after a win over Aston Villa. “We need to defend better. It was just a tactical decision, leaving super quality on the bench, but bringing tactical discipline and hoping that the team could be solid.”