Signed by Chelsea in the summer of 2012, he arrived with a big reputation, and even bigger price tag, but £32million signing Eden Hazard looks like he might just be the real deal. Although a number of Chelsea’s big money signings have turned into expensive flops, witness Torres, Shevchenko, et al, the Belgian international is shaping up to buck that trend.
Perhaps little known in England, Hazard is no overnight sensation. He has been capped by Belgium all the way through the age groups from under 15 to full international, and was signed by Lille into their youth system in a shrewd move as a 15 year old in 2005. His time with the development squad must have been impressive as he was promoted to the reserve squad aged 16. He made his senior debut in November of the same year in a friendly and then in a competitive match, as a substitute, later the same month. The club were astute enough, however, to appreciate the gem that they had, and his development was not rushed.
He became an established first team squad player during the 2007-08, and it is great witness to Lille’s approach to the blossoming talent that his return in both goals and assists increased every year until his final season in France during the 2011-12 season in which he played 49 games, scoring 20 goals and adding 16 assists. The big clubs of Europe circled for his signature, and towards the end of the transfer window, he utilized Twitter to announce that he was “joining the European champions.”
Although the French league is no stroll in the park, the frenetic pace of the Premier League often proves a hard adjustment for players to make. As a 21 year old however, Hazard was no novice, and he quickly settled into a midfield triumvirate alongside the established Juan Mata and the young Brazilian tyro Oscar, designed to provide chances for Fernando Torres. All very well in theory, but this is Chelsea, so things don’t often pan out as planned. Very quickly, the architect of the plan and hero of Munich, Roberto di Matteo, was vanquished, and replaced with the unpopular Rafa Benitez. His style was less expansive and his early selections often resulted in one of the trio being sidelined to accommodate Victor Moses. Benitez quickly learned however that Hazard was a force that could turn a game on his own, and latterly the only reason for his exclusion has been to rest him for bigger games. Even in these occasions, he has appeared from the bench to turn the game in the Blues’ favour. Witness the home leg to Sparta Sprague when a late Hazard solo goal secured passage for Chelsea in the Europa League, or when at 2-0 down to Manchester United at Old Trafford, a half-time entrance brought a superlative goal and turned the game into one that Chelsea were unlucky not to win.
To date this season he has played a total of 50 games for Chelsea, scoring 12 times and adding no less than 17 assists. For a first season in the Premier League, statistically it’s a sound start, but what it doesn’t show is the other contributions he makes to the team’s attacking options. His searing pace and ability to beat a defender on either side is the very stuff of dread for defenders, and this inevitably helps to create space for his teammates.
It’s unlikely that Chelsea will produce the results that Hazard’s ability deserves this season, but should their striker issue be resolved for the new campaign, with either the return of Belgian compatriot Romelu Lukaku, or perhaps Falcao – or even both – backed up by Demba Ba, there’s a bright future ahead with the right manager in place. Next season, could see the emergence of Hazard as a truly exceptional player. Remember, for this particular Hazard, you have been warned!