Of the many issues that transpire throughout modern-day football, the inflated transfer market may top the list. Whether they’ve overpaid for established talent, promising youth, or a player on his last limb, Chelsea Football Club has been heavily scrutinized over their transfer activity since Roman Abramovich’s arrival in 2003.
Through the Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo era, Abramovich realized the squad required an overhaul to rebuild the dynasty he initially created. Change was imminent, and Abramovich invested in promising young talent across the world. Juan Mata was signed during the Villas-Boas era, and was the key creative cog throughout Chelsea’s 2011/2012 dismal campaign, which surprisingly led to a Champions League triumph.
The following summer showcased the progression of Chelsea’s evolution in which they acquired the unknown, frail, Oscar, and a Belgian talent that was too good to pass up. Once hailed as the ‘new Messi’, Eden Hazard’s sleek movement, diminutive figure, and prolific skill were the main reasons why both Manchester clubs sought after the young starlet – but his heart was elsewhere.
It’s a bit surreal to know that an unproven 21-year-old soccer player kept an entire continent in suspense. But this was not a rarity to any human being that has followed sports over the past decade. It was only two years prior when LeBron James – the best basketball player of our generation – took to primetime to state “he’s taking his talents to South Beach.”
This situation was different – Eden Hazard was not a world-class player, nor was he being sold for a world-record transfer fee, yet the young Belgian’s future was placed on a pedestal. He didn’t jump in front of cameras, or have his announcement constantly advertised on national television. Instead, the Belgian took to social media and declared that he would be joining the “2012 Champions League winners” – West London would be his new home.
Football has always played a relevant role in the Hazard household. Eden, and his three brothers followed in his parents – Thierry and Carine’s – footsteps. Thierry played at the amateur level in Belgium, whereas his mother was a striker in Belgium’s women’s league. Shockingly, Hazard was playing football before he stepped foot on earth, as Carine extended her career with representative side Manage, during the first three months of Eden’s pregnancy.
Hazard expressed the desire to play the sport his parents enjoyed at a very young age, and it didn’t take long for coaches around Europe to identify his natural talent. Royal Stade Brainois football club general manager, Pascal Delmoitiez, was the first to see a knee-high, scrawny, bare footed Hazard. The Belgian’s talent was undeniable – he took advantage of the football pitch minutes away from his house, and Brainois president Alain Pauly was full of praise for the young wizard.
“You could tell straight away that Eden was special. He was a superhero for his team from the start and he has been a superhero ever since,” Pauly said.
“The teams Eden played for at our club would win 5-0, 6-0 or 7-0 and Eden would always score four or five of the goals. It was not fair really because he was too good.”
Hazard was always the main man, but a move to Chelsea presented a new challenge for the Belgian. No longer was he a “big fish in a small pond,” the Belgian was irrationally expected to make an immediate impact in the Premier League, and he was presented the eyes of millions to do so. But, despite the quick intricate passing, flashy skill, and the jaw dropping runs down the left flank, Hazard endured a streaky first season in England.
The Belgian lacked a cutting edge in the final third, while his defensive work was exposed against the likes of Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk, thus leading to Di Matteo’s sacking. At 22-years-old, Hazard consistently faded out of matches, and he dominated headlines worldwide for kicking a ball boy at Swansea; the Belgian’s road to stardom hit a rough patch.
Nonetheless, Hazard was still in the process of finding himself – while Rafa Benitez’s short-term tenure saw positive improvements towards the end of last season, it was Jose Mourinho’s return that brought the Belgian to the next level.
“He’s spoken to us all and told us all what he wants from us. He told me to be ambitious with my game, to try things and that I can do something special this year,” Hazard said during pre-season.
Mourinho is known for enhancing the performances of his players, ultimately turning them into world-beaters, and with so many young promising talent at his disposal, the chances of the Portuguese manager replicating this feat was high. Yet, Chelsea’s mediocre performances at the early half of the season had many questioning Mourinho’s ability to succeed at the highest level, following his diabolical final season at Real Madrid.
In particular, Hazard’s performances began to elevate after being dropped in Chelsea’s 3-0 win against Schalke in the Champions League. The Belgian reportedly failed to return back to England for training – as he missed his scheduled train – after watching his former side Lille battle Monaco, which infuriated Mourinho. “That’s the end of story. He’s a kid. Kids make mistakes and fathers have to be clever in the way they educate their sons. He didn’t play. He wanted to play. He was sad because he didn’t play. We won without him. On Saturday, he is back. So, end of story,” Mourinho said.
Since being omitted from the first team, Hazard scored a sensational goal against Liverpool, a penalty at the final whistle against West Brom to preserve Mourinho’s home streak, and produced magnificent performances at Sunderland and Hull City. The Belgian is slowly developing the efficiency and consistency required to be a top-class European player, and on the defensive end he tirelessly protects his fullback, displaying the tactical discipline he lacked last season.
The abundance of attacking players at Stamford Bridge hasn’t bothered Hazard, as he’s slowly coming into is own. The confidence oozes out of his veins with every touch, fear is quickly shown when he glides across the final third, and the Belgian has slowly made a functional Chelsea side his platform to silence the cynics.
Statistically, Hazard’s game has elevated as he’s transformed into one of the best players in the league. He’s created the most chances in the league (52), and is currently Chelsea’s leading goalscorer, matching the tally he recorded last season (9). David Silva, Mesut Ozil, Luis Suarez and Robert Snodgrass only better Hazard’s 2.4 key passes per game, and the Belgian averages 3.5 successful dribbles.
“Eden can become one of the best players in the world. Now he sees his football and profession with different eyes,” Mourinho said. “Everyone knows he is a talented player, that he was that when he arrived here. But now he is trying to go to a different level, we are helping him and he is doing it step by step. Hopefully, the big talent can transform himself into the big player.”
Perhaps, Chelsea’s league position can be stemmed to Hazard, who’s been the Blues’ most consistent performer this season. With every attack Mourinho’s side aim to get the ball onto the Belgian’s feet – more so, he’s transformed into Chelsea’s go-to-guy.
Hazard moved to England to establish himself as a top player, and at the age of 23 he’s in contention to win the Premier League, Champions League, and play an integral role in Belgium’s World Cup campaign this summer. The sky is the limit for Hazard, and under Mourinho’s guidance he has the potential to become one of the best players in the world.