Eden Hazard is set to return to the Chelsea line-up against Newcastle after dropping to the bench for the midweek win over Swansea. The Blues might have won the match but it was also a reminder of how much they rely on their star man to create, writes Adam Bate.
There were some nervous faces in the Stamford Bridge crowd on Wednesday evening as Swansea toiled for an equaliser late on. That the visitors did not even manage to fire off a single shot is an indication that they were not particularly close to finding one and Chelsea certainly deserved their 1-0 win. But there was a spark missing from their performance.
Willian, with his jinking feet, occasionally hints at providing one. Pedro is capable of turning conjuror himself. But Eden Hazard is the true magician of SW6 and Chelsea are just nowhere near as much fun without him. The Belgian was rested for all but the final moments against Swansea but he will surely return against Newcastle – and return in his new No 10 role.
Antonio Conte said earlier in the week that it is important his side does not lose its identity. He was referring to the change of system to what is perhaps best described as a 3-5-1-1 with Hazard playing off Alvaro Morata. After winning the Premier League title with the 3-4-3 used against Swansea, this alternative approach puts Hazard centre-stage. He is revelling in the role.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte was pleased with the team's win over Swansea
“Eden is in really good form. I think he likes to play as a striker,” said Conte after the draw at Liverpool in which Hazard impressed once more. He has three goals and two assists this Premier League season but that does not tell the whole tale. Hazard averages a successful dribble every 15 minutes on the pitch – nobody else completes one inside 22 minutes.
Playing in a central role has opened up his options. Hazard is no longer in a direct battle with the right-back but can instead pursue pockets of space elsewhere and beat opponents to the left and to the right. It is a role he has craved for years. “I like to play as a No 10,” he said in October of last year. “I think I have more freedom offensively.”
Back then he did not hold out much hope of enjoying an extended run in the role. “At Chelsea, we do not play a system with a No 10,” he said. “I do not think Chelsea wants to change just for me.” But Conte has changed in search of greater stability, persuaded in part by the opportunity it presents to get Cesc Fabregas into the side alongside two midfielders.
Conte felt confident enough against Swansea to field Fabregas in a two-man midfield with N’Golo Kante. But even at home to a side in the drop zone, he felt the need to withdraw his wide forwards and introduce Danny Drinkwater to accompany Kante behind Fabregas as an added layer of protection. That seems likely to be his go-to strategy in the bigger games.
It is a system that puts a huge onus on Hazard to create and relies heavily on the relationship that he can forge with Morata. Thankfully, the striker is much more than a target man and is capable of linking the play as well as drifting wide to open up space for his partner. Morata has already provided two assists for Hazard in their 481 minutes together on the pitch.
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Conte speaks warmly of the “good link with Alvaro” that his most creative player has developed but the concern is surely that the 3-5-1-1 formation does not offer too much support from elsewhere, a fact acknowledged by Hazard himself at Anfield. “If we wanted to win we had to do something together, just me and him,” he pointed out afterwards.
Perhaps that explains Jose Mourinho’s reluctance to use Hazard there during their time together at Chelsea. On the face of it, switching him to a central role could have stripped the player of some of the defensive duties that he occasionally neglected – most notably in the 2015 Champions League semi-final exit to Atletico Madrid.
But Mourinho had other concerns. “We have different concepts of No 10, me and him,” he explained the following season. “I demand a lot from a No 10. I like a No 10 to score goals. When he plays at No 10, he gets into areas where sometimes he is surrounded by teams.” It took time for Liverpool to recognise this last weekend but eventually, they figured it out.
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Jurgen Klopp described Chelsea’s tactics as “deep defending and giving the ball to Hazard” but he devised a plan. “It’s not the most thankful task to defend him alone,” said Klopp. “With a second player, it is a little bit easier. With a third player, we had a good chance.” Eventually, they shut him down. “In the second half it was more complicated,” admitted Hazard.
That is the challenge he must face if he to turn his move into the centre of the pitch into a long-term success. For Conte, the appeal is obvious as it allows him to get that extra man in midfield and delegate creative responsibility to his best player. If Hazard can embrace that responsibility then Chelsea could yet flourish. Without him, they are not the same side.