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The Hazard of Hazard

After a disappointing club season, Belgium’s Eden Hazard looked like a superstar against Hungary, but one important question still remains

Musto Design
Musto Design

How good is Eden Hazard?

A year ago, the answer seemed obvious: He scored 14 goals and recorded nine assists. He won both the players’ and the writers’ Premier League player of the year awards. Chelsea won the league title. And his manager, José Mourinho, put it clearly. During the 2014–15 season, Hazard was better than Cristiano Ronaldo.

A year later, Mourinho’s claim sounds like a lesson from Proverbs. Ronaldo’s Real Madrid won the Champions League, and their ageless attacker scored 35 goals to go along with 11 assists. Meanwhile, a 25-year-old Hazard finished the Premier League season with four goals and three assists, Chelsea finished in 10th place, and Mourinho is now the manager of Manchester United. Hazard was no Ronaldo; he wasn’t even Wes Hoolahan.

Then, over the weekend, this happened:

Hazard not only lived up to his ex-manager’s belief, he exceeded it. He was better than anyone else on the planet. In addition to his goal, he assisted on Michy Batshuayi’s, lost possession only five times, and turned the Hungarian defensive third into Easter Island whenever he had the ball at his feet. Despite winning their group, Hungary were a mediocre team, but there aren’t many players who can totally decimate a defense with such relentless and incisive efficiency.

Four games into the Euros, and we’re back here: If he’s not always getting that many goals or assists, how valuable is an attacker who won’t lose the ball and can consistently move it down the field? Hazard’s completed seven more dribbles than anyone else in the tournament, he’s tied for the lead in assists, and he’s fourth in key passes … but he’s only taken nine shots. Among players with at least three appearances, Hazard barely breaks into the top 60 of shots per 90 minutes. There’s plenty of benefit in a player who can break down a defender and create for his teammates, but it’s not as easy to quantify compared to a guy who’s peppering the opposing goal from dangerous positions. With such a lopsided profile, Hazard’s a unique and effective attacking player, but we don’t know how good he is. And maybe we never really have.

In general, Hazard’s drop-off between the past two seasons can be explained by two things: He stopped shooting and he stopped scoring.

Of course, shooting and scoring have never been Hazard’s bankable skills. He’s one of the best players in the world with the ball at his feet and the defender in his sights. Dribbling at someone is inherently risky because it opens you up to a turnover — passing isn’t as fun, though it’s easier — but Hazard’s averaged at least 3.7 successful take-ons per 90 over the past three seasons, while his rate of failure hasn’t gone over 2.7. Plus, he makes up for any mistakes with an elite pass completion rate for an attacker.

That methodical aggression gives Hazard’s play a hypnotic sense of inevitability. The stereotypical dribbler is what someone with an egg as their Twitter avatar might call a “YouTube player.” You know, a guy who’s totally inconsistent, but has enough mind-melting moments to be stitched together and backed by the latest Polish trance hit to form a two-minute video. (Search for Mohamed Zidan, and you’ll be convinced he’s better than Zinedine Zidane.) Watch them in a real game, and the excitement comes from having no idea what’s gonna happen when they get the ball. With Hazard, you know he’s not going to lose it, and he’s probably going to beat the guy in front of him. There’s a stocky elegance to the way he moves, as he’s able to shift directions so seamlessly that it looks like the ground is moving beneath whomever’s in his way.

Since Hazard is rarely unable to do what he wants with the ball at his feet, when he’s scoring, all the dots in his game get connected, and he gets favorably compared to one of the two best players in the world. But he’s still never scored more than 11 non-penalty goals in a season, and that’s not likely to change, either, as he’s never averaged more than 2.3 shots per 90. Since he’s beating so many guys on the dribble, his chance-creation numbers have always been good (not great), but his overall attacking output has never been at a superstar level.

Because of this, Hazard’s true value can often feel like it varies not only from game to game, but also from half to half. Since Hazard can do everything else you’d want from an attacker — and because it’s all so obvious — when he strings together a cluster of dangerous shots, you’re briefly watching one of the best players in the world. Inevitably, though, the flare-ups eventually die out and his production settles into what it’s always been. He’s yet to produce a dominant shooting season, but after what Mourinho got out of him, it must be hard for a top-level manager not to convince himself that his system will be the one to turn Hazard’s running into a consistent end product.

After the 2014–15 season, the typical buyer clubs (Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain) were circling Hazard for a big-money transfer, but after his goal production cratered this past season, his market value is up in the air. Whether he stays at Chelsea when Antonio Conte finally takes over will come down to the answers to these two questions: 1) Was Hazard’s near-complete lack of goalmouth production a blip on his developmental curve? And 2) If he’s never going to shoot at a higher clip, how valuable can he ultimately be? The first question might disappear if Hazard keeps playing like he did against Hungary, but the latter isn’t going away.

Thankfully, we don’t have to make these decisions. We just get to watch.