The Belgian winger lit up the World Cup in Russia over the summer, dazzling with his dribbling skills and creativity for Belgium as Roberto Martínez’s men secured a third-place finish.
Hazard was then widely expected to make a swift exit from Stamford Bridge, with Real Madrid reported to be lurking. But he remained with the Blues and now looks all the better for it, restored to optimum efficiency under new manager Maurizio Sarri.
Having disposed of Antonio Conte following a fifth-place finish last term, Chelsea have instilled the former Napoli coach and Sarri has quickly set about employing his unique tactical style in west London.
Sarri, during his time with Empoli and Napoli in Serie A, marked himself out as one of Europe’s most astute tacticians thanks to his fluid, possession-based approach, guiding the Partenopei to a second-place finish last season.
And no player, it seems, is benefitting more from the arrival of ‘Sarri-ball’ at Chelsea more than Hazard, who has been quick to point out the tactical differences between the new boss and his two predecessors.
“I like to have the ball. Not in my own half, but in the last 30 metres,” Hazard said, speaking to Chelsea TV.
“I like this type of game. It’s completely different than Antonio Conte or [José] Mourinho before. We have more ball so for me it’s not bad.”
The difference in Hazard, even at this early juncture, is abundantly evident, too.
Last season, the Belgian showed glimpses of the player he can be when fit, motivated and properly utilised, but consistency was an issue as he was switched between a centre-forward berth and his customary position on the left flank.
With Chelsea now looking to dominate possession from week to week, rather than taking a more pragmatic, reactive approach under Conte, Hazard sees more of the ball, and he gets it in the areas he likes to operate in.
Brazil-born Italy international Jorginho now anchors the Blues’ midfield, with Chelsea lining up in Sarri’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, rather than the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 of Conte or the 4-2-3-1 or Mourinho.
Jorginho, a summer signing from Napoli, where he was the heartbeat of Sarri’s side, is the conductor, always in a position to receive the ball and reliable in his distribution of it, breaking the opposition’s lines to service the forward players.
As Hazard has mentioned, this means the former Lille attacker doesn’t have to come deep in search of the ball, that he can hold his position and trust it will arrive from his team-mates.
Now, Hazard sees more of the ball than ever – making 86.77 passes per 90 this term versus 50.66 last – and is invariably well positioned to wreak havoc upon opposition defences.
Sarri’s system, based around his unique interpretation of a positional play philosophy similar to Pep Guardiola’s, is all about using ‘third man’ runs to exploit space, meaning passing triangles and timely forward runs are used to overwhelm the opposition.
Hazard, replicating the role Lorenzo Insigne starred in for Sarri at Napoli, is often the beneficiary of such movements; he is taking significantly more touches inside the opposition box this season (10.08 per 90) than he did last term (6.77), despite the fact he was often fielded as a striker in Conte’s final campaign.
The ability to operate almost exclusively in advanced areas has allowed Hazard to do what he does best: create. He has conjured marginally more open-play key passes this season (2.82 per 90 to 2.81) and his overall creativity has improved, with his expected goals assisted (xA) average shooting up to 0.66 per 90 from 0.29.
When everything falls into place for Hazard, he quickly reminds the world he still has a legitimate claim to being the Premier League’s very best player. Thriving under Sarri so far this season, he is back to his unstoppable best.