False nine Hazard the best player in the Premier League – and here's the proof
The Chelsea star recorded a goal and an assist against Brighton to highlight how central he is to his manager’s system and the division as a whole
Goals, assists and a style of play which delights football lovers everywhere, Eden Hazard remains a leader and the most important player at Chelsea after another electric performance at Brighton on Sunday.
The one criticism that has been made of Hazard in the past is that he is not clinical enough, with it those failings which are preventing him from standing alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as part of the global elite.
He is unlikely to outscore two iconic performers again in 2018-19, but he secured more assists than any player in Europe’s top five leagues – registering his ninth with a brilliant run and cross for Pedro to tap in and break the deadlock against Brighton. It was then Messi who decided to put in a bullying display against Levante to reach 10 assists, surpassing Hazard just hours after he reached the milestone.
Hazard followed that up with a direct and confident piece of counter-attacking play, picking up the ball as Willian and Mateo Kovacic pressed the Seagulls to beat Mat Ryan at his near post and get in on the act himself.
Over the course of another scintillating showing, Hazard proved that not only is he the best winger at Chelsea, but also the best No. 9.
He also enhanced his claims to being the cream of the Premier League crop, with a run of games having been required to get back to his best following a two-week layoff across October and November.
David Luiz lined up alongside the Belgian in Sunday’s 2-1 away win and he thinks a talismanic team-mate has proved that he is good enough to line up as the Blues’ central striker.
The Brazilian said: “Intelligent players can play everywhere. It doesn’t matter the position. He is at the top level, he is a world-class player, he can play everywhere. If you put him in any formation, he can understand it and is going to do it. It doesn’t matter his position, if he is intelligent it is easy to understand and play.
“Even with Alvaro [Morata] and Olivier [Giroud] the quality of the tactic is still the same. We are going to build with everybody. It is just different players with more mobility and more movement.”
Hazard is proving to be more important than ever for Chelsea, having already delivered more Premier League goals and assists this season (17 in 16 appearances) than he did across the entire 2017-18 campaign (16 in 34 appearances). His record this term also represents a league-high and Maurizio Sarri has hinted that Hazard as a false nine is here to stay, if he can adjust one area of his game.
“I think that, for us, he could be very important in this position,” Sarri said in his post-match press conference. “He’s very able to come out and play with his team-mates, very able to create spaces. Now I think that, in that position, he has to improve in attacking the box.”
This could be a pivotal moment in Sarri’s tactical tinkering as he seeks to turn Chelsea into a side capable of playing without a big No. 9. At Napoli, towards the end of his tenure, the Italian favoured Dries Mertens as a leading frontman and masterminded a best-ever finish in Serie A with 91 points.
He now has Hazard firing on all cylinders.
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The 27-year-old’s current run of form represents the first time he has provided four assists in consecutive league games at Chelsea and, with that feat so rare, you have to go back to Cesc Fabregas’ run in September 2014 to find the last Blues player to match the Belgian.
He had gone 12 games without a goal before facing Brighton on Sunday, but there was little doubt that Hazard would get back in the groove on the south coast. And, as the assists keep on coming, Antonio Rudiger believes Hazard is thriving in a new role under Sarri.
The German defender said: “He does not have too much of an ego. If he sees other players standing in a better position, he plays them in. I think that’s fair enough. He is a leader. He provides an example, not be speaking, but by showing that he’s very good.
“To reach 40 goals? Maybe he can do it. But what he does is okay. He is human, of course he is. But the way he is playing is fantastic, we all know what he is capable of. I am happy that he scored.”
Over recent weeks, Hazard was getting assists without goals. Then, against Manchester City, it was a case of self-sacrifice as he helped to secure a prized scalp.
Against Brighton, he was able to return to his favourite role – the superstar.
Manchester City may have a better squad than Chelsea, and Liverpool are full of attacking talent, but there are few players who can be as decisive as Hazard, while also adapting their game to meet the demands of their manager.
Hazard is leading the way for both individual and collective contribution, while also offering the leadership which allows him to drag team-mates along with him through tougher moments.
How many other players in the Premier League can claim to be able to do that?