Eden Hazard stood patiently. He knew what he was going to do, he just needed to be given permission to do it.
The referee’s whistle was his cue. The Belgian jogged up to the ball, which was placed on the penalty spot, and nonchalantly chipped it beyond Newcastle United goalkeeper Karl Darlow. It was an arrogant finish, a clear sign the Chelsea No.10 was full of confidence.
And he had every right to be. An ankle injury sustained while on international duty in June meant Hazard missed the opening weeks of the 2017/18 campaign through injury.
The Italian’s decision to evolve the 3-4-3 formation that won the Blues the title last season to a 3-5-2 shape has released the Belgian of all defensive responsibility.September saw him playing his way back to fitness as Chelsea struggled, but since October Hazard has been at his brilliant best. And a large reason for that is Antonio Conte.
He no longer has to track opposition full-backs or drop back to ensure defensive shape, he is free to roam across the Chelsea attack and find pockets of space from where he can hurt the opposition.
Few in world football are as dangerous as Hazard when he has time to turn and face an opposition defence.
His dribbling ability is only rivalled by a couple of players but he can also unlock a defence with intelligent passes or can threaten goalkeepers from distance. He is the whole attacking package.
Despite a slow start to the campaign as he regained his match sharpness, Hazard already has eight goals to his name in all competitions and six assists. He is contributing to a Chelsea goal every 119.6 minutes.
By comparison, Lionel Messi has contributed to a Barcelona goal every 79 minutes this term, while Cristiano Ronaldo, despite struggling, is still scoring or assisting every 95.6 minutes.
Meanwhile, the figure for Kevin De Bruyne, whose performances for Premier League leaders Manchester City have been lauded this term, is 119.1. Admittedly Hazard’s compatriot is playing a very different role, but it demonstrates the impact the Chelsea No.10 is having – similar to his former Blues team-mate.
The Belgian has always been instrumental to any success Chelsea have had in recent seasons, but now he is becoming increasing influential in games. There have often been cases over the years where Hazard has faded out of games and failed to make an impact. In his new role, that is no longer happening.
He is always receiving the ball in dangerous positions and, as a result, is far more of a threat.
However, at this stage, this is nothing more than an impressive start. Hazard has been through patches of fine form in the past, where he has been genuinely unplayable for opposition defences.Last season Hazard averaged 2.2 shots per game in the Premier League; this term he is taking 2.7. His key passes per 90 minutes during Chelsea’s title-winning campaign was 2.60, now it is 2.9. And his expected goals (0.35) and expected assists (0.23) per 90 are also up on last season, too.
But he has never been able to sustain that across an entire season, à la Messi and Ronaldo. When at their peak the numbers posted by the pair were, quite frankly, freakish.
Hazard is unlikely to score 50 goals a season, especially given the relentless nature of an English campaign, but he can hit 30 or, at a push, 40. He is that good.
Conte’s tactical change has freed Hazard like never before. Every game he is able to express himself, to create and construct.
Chelsea are already reaping the rewards and Hazard is on route to closing the gap to the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar.