Our Belgian star talks about his one-v-one contests on the pitch and his dribbling decisions…
The numbers were there in this website’s The Data Day article after last weekend game, our look at the analysis statistics from the win at Crystal Palace. One line in it read:
‘In the attacking third, Eden Hazard completed 24 of his 28 passes, at least 10 more than anyone else. Hazard was also successful with all five of his attempted take-ons.’
It certainly was not the first time figures like that for our Belgian star were published and it surely will not be the last. There in those numbers is a snapshot of the strength of Hazard's attacking game, equally dangerous when spotting a ball to a well-position team-mate as he is when choosing that familiar sudden acceleration or sharp turn past his closest marker.
Hazard’s 100 per cent success rate last weekend when deciding to dribble past his opponent is not hugely higher than he has managed across the whole of this season. His success rate in all the Premier Leagues game is 76 per cent, the second highest figure from players in the top 10 for attempted take-ons, in other words, from those who are the regular dribbles. Only Middlesbrough’s young Spaniard Adama Traore has a higher percentage at 78 per cent.
Hazard is the player who has completed the most take-ons in the Premier League in 2016/17. His 71 is one more than Palace's Wilfried Zaha.
With the season approaching its halfway stage and with Hazard having played his full part in Chelsea’s climb to the top of the table, the official Chelsea website decided to talk to him about his decision-making. When does he pass and when does he go at someone, and how much thought in advance does he give it? Is his high level of success at beating a man because he knows the right moment to attempt that, spotting a defender momentarily unbalanced or turning the wrong way. or simply because he is very good at it?
‘It is natural, I play with instinct,’ Hazard quickly makes clear. ‘I don’t think about I need to do this or I need to do that. Once I have the chance to do something, it is instinct it depends on - sometimes I dribble, sometimes I pass the ball. I see a guy who is in the better place to shoot, I pass the ball. And when I dribble I don’t look at the balance of the opponent.
‘It is my way to play,’ he says of his high total for take-ons. 'I like to create some problems in the other defence. I like to touch the ball, I like to try to do something and sometimes I do, sometimes not but I know I am good when I go one against one, sometimes even one against two. I have got this quality so it is my style of play.’
Although natural aptitude and instinct are primary reasons why Hazard plays the way he does, and although he moved to play in France in his teenage years, he certainly would not have been discouraged by Belgium’s youth coaching system which was overhauled at the start of the millennium, and puts great value on developing dribbling skills and encouraging one v ones. The subsequent rise of that country’s football has been clear to all.
‘In football now you can see a lot of passes,’ Hazard adds, ‘but when we were young we watched a lot of video on YouTube and we wanted to watch some clips of Ronaldinho, Robinho, players like that because they liked to dribble, and we wanted to do this.
‘Now in the young teams in Belgium, they watch the professionals and we have players like me, Dries Martens who plays for Napoli, Kevin De Bruyne, a lot of small guys with technical ability and we try to teach them this. It is like Barcelona, the professional team plays one way and all the youth teams they play the same way. So in Belgium it is the same, in the young teams in Belgium we try to do the same as the professionals so we like to have the ball to dribble, we teach them that.’
Such a style of play can come at a painful price however and yet again, Hazard is the Premier League’s most fouled player (54 times this season, with Diego Costa next with 46).
‘I think every year it is the same,’ he acknowledges, without any hint of it being a big worry to him.
‘When you’ve got the ball at your feet or you keep the ball, you have to be ready to get kicked so I don’t complain about this. I just want to be protected but it is football now and sometimes you get kicked and you get a free-kick or a penalty and it is a chance to score, so I am happy to do this.’