Eden Hazard is thrilled with life at Chelsea right now and is glowing when it comes to the role Antonio Conte has handed him in recent weeks. The Belgian is playing almost in a free role from the left of a front three in a 3-4-3 and while this means less defensive duties and positional discipline – as he endured under Jose Mourinho – there is now a greater responsibility.
The 25-year-old certainly seems aware of his changing role and was quick to emphasise his intent to score more goals moving forward.
“I am a striker so I try every game to score and my confidence is good,” Hazard revealed after scoring in the emphatic 3-0 victory over Leicester. “I scored two goals for the national team and one this weekend and I hope to score more in the next game.
“I play more inside the pitch and we play also this system in the national team,” he added. “For the strikers, we have more freedom, and even when we lose the ball if we press together we can get it back, and it is good system for Chelsea.”
Since Hazard was so particular when describing himself more than once as a striker, it is worth examining his goalscoring record as a Chelsea player. Now into his fifth season as a Chelsea player, a Premier League best of 14 goals simply must be surpassed, though his current total of three projects him to score exactly that many again. Hazard showed against Leicester an ever-increasing desire to drive into the penalty area: frequent one-twos with Diego Costa, the fluffed volley one on one with Kasper Schmeichel from N’Golo Kante’s exquisite chipped through-ball and his eventual goal – despite the good fortune – coming from praying on the Foxes’ last man. That goal was emblematic of Hazard’s evolving role, as he continues to use Costa dropping deep as a trigger to gamble by looking to offer a ball in behind. Costa is effectively taking centre-backs away from goal – in this case Robert Huth and Wes Morgan – which is giving Hazard the chance of a foot race with the opposing full-back when coming inside. He seems to be taking advantage more often through sheer speed and tenacity; something that was evidently absent when his former Portuguese manager so desperately needed a spark to his side.
It is especially conspicuous in the aftermath of Mourinho’s departure when you consider Chelsea’s lack of European football and therefore fewer games to both build and maintain sharpness. Due to moving away from a stationary starting position under Conte, Hazard is certainly opening his legs up a great deal more and will pose an enormous threat to Antonio Valencia. Mourinho will have to lean on Eric Bailly’s anticipation to judge when to come across and help the Ecuadorian, but the addition of Marcus Rashford, shadowing the space in front of his right-back, could be key to United curtailing Hazard’s form, despite inevitable groans from onlookers as there were on Monday.
It’s not a perfect transformation just yet: decision making still requires polishing with Hazard guilty of erratic shooting after skipping inside on at least a couple of occasions last Saturday. A frustrating pass inside, back to Costa after being sent clear by the Spain international late on, rather than drive towards goal, also demonstrated this. Hazard, eager to let Huth recover and cut back inside, failed to account for Daniel Amartey’s recovery on that occasion.
It’s coming though and the arrival of his former boss will likely galvanise him further to perform on the big stage. Despite premature calls of Mourinho’s demise, the tactical restraint he placed on Liverpool shows he still possesses the nous to shut down elite talent. Given his familiarity with Hazard, Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge will be the ultimate test of whether the Belgian can be decisive on the big occasion.