Despite being one of Europe’s best footballers, Eden Hazard is consistently spoken about in terms of what he can’t do, and what he hasn’t done.
This is a footballer who has, twice in the last four seasons, won the Premier League and subsequently been voted his side’s best player by his supporters. The other two seasons have been, admittedly, below-par — but Hazard has followed those campaigns by recording the most assists at Euro 2016, and then the most assists at World Cup 2018, a tournament where he was voted the second-best player behind Luka Modric. Go back before this four-year period, and you’ll find Hazard voted into his division’s all-star team almost every season. He consistently delivers. But, seemingly, he consistently promises more.
Hazard’s new manager at Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri, was barely in his job a month before he said that Hazard should be aiming for 40 goals this season. He’s also stated his belief that Hazard doesn’t need a transfer to Real Madrid in order to win the Ballon d’Or. Those two factors, of course, are somewhat connected. Sarri was probably speaking about Hazard’s scoring record in terms of all competitions, but our experience of the last decade suggests that, for an outright attacker, a-goal-a-game is roughly what you need to be aiming for to win the Ballon d’Or. Lionel Messi has achieved that four times, Cristiano Ronaldo five times. Both have come very close on a further three occasions.
Yet go back before this era of Messi and Ronaldo dominance, and it becomes clear that such extraordinary goal-scoring tallies were almost unheard of. Switch from Golden Ball to Golden Shoe, which rewards Europe’s top goal scorer every season, and you’ll find Diego Forlan winning it with 25 goals in 38 games, or Francesco Totti with 26 in 35. Thierry Henry twice won it and never really got close to scoring a-goal-a-game. Our expectations have been raised dramatically by the era of Messi and Ronaldo, who might well be the best two footballers of all-time.
The counter-argument, of course, is that other players in the modern game are scoring at a-goal-a-game, albeit on not such a consistent basis. Gonzalo Higuain scored 36 in 35 for Napoli three years ago and Luis Suarez hit 40 in 35 for Barcelona. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has nearly got there for Dortmund, as has Robert Lewandowski for Bayern Munich. Mohamed Salah wasn’t too far off last season at Liverpool. Football’s increased inequality over the last decade means the bigger sides have got stronger, the sides near the bottom have got weaker, and the big-name players spend more time close to goal, getting more chances. Such ridiculous goal-scoring records are increasingly achievable.
Hazard, in fairness, hasn’t threatened to get there yet. He hit 20 in 38 during his final season at Lille, but 16 goals in 36 games is his best return in the Premier League, during that title-winning campaign of 2016-17 under Antonio Conte.
This season, though, things might be changing. Only Sergio Aguero has outscored him in the Premier League, and Hazard has seven goals in 11 matches. Only eight of those matches have been starts, so he’s actually scoring at a rate of one goal every 112 minutes, creeping up towards the type of rate that would put him in the top bracket of forwards.
The question, though, is whether Hazard actually wants to reach that level — in terms of goal scoring or in terms of the Ballon d’Or. Hazard is remarkably selfless for the standards of a modern attacker, especially one blessed with such fantastic dribbling skills. He’s equally happy to play defence-splitting assists as he is providing finishers. He’s already managed four this season.
He seems equally uninterested by talk of individual awards. “Winning the Ballon d’Or is not a goal for me,” he declared this week. “If I win it one day, great. If I do not, it won’t be a problem.”
That rather summarises Hazard. He’s not the type of relentless, driven footballer that thinks about improving his game every minute of every day. When Chelsea’s training is finished, Hazard doesn’t stay out to work on his finishing or work out in the gym — he goes home and spends time with his family. He happily admitted that playing for Real Madrid was his dream, yet this summer — when Real had just lost Ronaldo and were seemingly in the market for a comparable attacker — made no effort to force through the transfer by declaring he was unsettled. He just got on with business, and after a minimal preseason because of his rest period after the World Cup, was immediately being introduced as a game-changing substitute in Chelsea’s opening Premier League games to great effect.
Hazard is essentially just a normal bloke, happy enough with his current surroundings and his present life, not desperate to tick every box or be declared the world’s greatest.
What shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is the extent to which Hazard dominates every match he plays in. Whether he’s orchestrating passing moves, threading through-balls or providing the final ball, Hazard is almost always his side’s best player. The website WhoScored, which uses statistical criteria to calculate the best performer in every match, adjudges Hazard to have been man-of-the-match in six of his eight league starts so far this season, having been man-of-the-match in four of his six World Cup games. For an all-rounder like Hazard, that probably emphasises his level of performance more than goal-scoring statistics.
Maybe Hazard will get better, maybe he won’t. But we probably need to stop worrying about that, and just appreciate Hazard’s current level of brilliance. After all, that’s what the man himself is doing.