In the first part of our special festive interview with Eden Hazard, he talked about change and continuity. Today in the second part his leadership is discussed, including by Cesc Fabregas and Pedro, and Hazard also reflects on a wonderful World Cup, and the impact made at Chelsea by Maurizio Sarri and Gianfranco Zola since then…
‘He has become very effective when he has the ball because he is always producing something, maybe a goal or a pass or an assist for a team-mate. It is good to see that because I always regarded him as a very good player. Sometimes I said the day he uses these qualities better he would become a much better player, so I am delighted he is going the right way, and I believe there is a lot more to come.’
Those were Gianfranco Zola’s words about Eden Hazard when we asked two of our greatest-ever superstars a similar set of questions in May.
Their answers were published on this website in the wake of Hazard’s 300th Chelsea appearance, which he marked with an FA Cup final-winning goal at Wembley. Just a couple of months later, as fate would have it, Zola returned to the club he made such a legendary impact at as a member of Maurizio Sarri’s backroom staff.
Hazard said back in May he had seen some of the Italian’s best work for the Blues, but he didn’t know ‘lots and lots’ about him. That has all changed in the second half of 2018.
‘For us as players it is a privilege to work with him,’ Hazard says of Zola the coach.
‘He has helped the players a lot. We knew this guy was a legend, not just with Chelsea but in football. I know he used to play not exactly like me, but we have similar abilities.
‘It’s a bit like in the national team with Belgium when we spent two years with Thierry Henry. When this kind of legend talks, you listen.
‘Sarri has done a lot, and then Gianfranco is there to be the link between the manager and the players. For us it is a great experience.
‘Of course we have seen his ability on the pitch!’ Hazard adds. ‘Now he is a bit old, but you can see when he has got the ball he is very good.’
As Hazard alludes to there, it is not only Zola who has had a great impact since the summer but also Sarri, the mastermind behind the transformation in our style of play this season.
‘He’s a good guy,’ smiles Hazard. ‘He’s from another generation because he’s an older man, but he is close with the players, he is laughing a lot with us, and then when we are on the pitch we are working a lot also. It’s not just fun.
‘We do a lot of tactical work, and you can see on the pitch we have improved a lot from last year. We have adapted to the new system. We have brought new players. Jorginho is helping a lot, Kovacic, the new goalkeeper Kepa is already very good. Everything is going well. The manager is talking a lot to us which is good.
‘Sarri told me before the season started that playing as a number nine could be an option,’ continues Hazard.
‘It is good not just to be a target man, but also as a false nine where I can move, I can drop, I can go deep, I can go on the wing.
‘I like to change a lot, but we also have two great strikers. We will see. It depends on who is on the pitch.’
Since first being deployed up front under Sarri, in the impressive home victory over Manchester City earlier this month, Hazard has recorded three league goals and three assists in four games.
His ability to take a match by the scruff of the neck was most recently on display on Boxing Day, at Watford, when he determinedly led the line and provided the cutting thrust that proved the difference between the sides, earning us three more points. He also brought up his century of Chelsea goals, which he celebrated by running to hug Cesc Fabregas.
‘With Eden, one thing I can say is that outside of the pitch, if I was a coach, I would never give him the armband,’ Fabregas says of his team-mate. ‘He is very quiet, he doesn’t talk or get involved in many things.
‘But on the pitch, I could give him the armband. He is a leader: he always wants the ball, he always wants to make things happen. Yes, sometimes it doesn’t come off, this is the Premier League, a tough league, but he always tries. For every team he plays for, Belgium or Chelsea, he is a very important player.’
‘I understand what Cesc is saying,’ Hazard responds when we put Fabregas’s point to him.
‘I think exactly the same. Now I am the captain of Belgium, but for me it was strange because I know off the pitch I am not a leader. When I am on the pitch, in a different way to John Terry or Vincent Kompany for Belgium, for sure I am a leader.
‘I want the ball when we are in a bit of trouble so I can try to help. On the pitch I enjoy that responsibility a lot. When the team needs me, I try to do my best.
Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but I never try to hide when we are struggling.’
That despite Premier League defences so regularly resorting to foul means to halt Hazard in his tracks. He has been one of the five most-fouled players in the league every year since he joined Chelsea. Twice he has been the most fouled (the title-winning campaigns of 2014/15 and 2016/17) and already this term he leads the way, illegally halted on average every 24 minutes.
‘Sometimes it’s tough. For seven years I have got kicked all the time. But now I take care of my ankles, my knees! We have one of the best medical departments in the world.
‘I don’t like to say I like it, but when people kick me it gives me a feeling that I am too good, or they just want to stop me and they can’t. That gives me extra power to do something magic.’
It is an area of his game that Pedro has seen progress in since they have shared a dressing room.
‘He is a determined player,’ says the Spaniard. ‘When he gets the ball, he takes responsibility to score and to create chances. This is so difficult in football.
‘He has improved a lot in the last two years. Now he has a better mentality to fight, to compete. This is good for him. He is young now, but in three years probably he will be the best.’
At this year’s World Cup Hazard was not the best; not quite. At the end of the tournament he was awarded the Silver Ball trophy, given to the second-best performer on the sport’s biggest stage. Belgium picked up the bronze medal, along the way defeating Japan and Brazil in thrilling style.
Hazard especially excelled in the latter of those knockout games, a quarter-final, and, as he explained in the first part of this interview, he felt like he went on to another level because of his showings in Russia, where he yet again led by example. It proved a significant few weeks for his reputation in Belgium, too, as local journalist Kristof Terreur explains.
‘He left as a young boy to France, he’s never played in the Belgian league, so people didn’t really know him, they only heard about him,’ Terreur, a regular in the press box at Chelsea matches, explains.
‘People based their view on him basically on his performances with the national team. Between 2008 and 2011 it wasn’t that good, then it was with ups and downs. So this view emerged that this guy wasn’t as good as everyone was saying, a typical view in countries where they don’t know a player.
‘The game against Brazil was the significant point. People started appreciating him, also the guy behind the player, the joker, the humble guy. That’s only something that has come out in the last year: an honest guy who is always laughing.
‘They saw that with his performance on the balcony in Brussels after the World Cup. They saw the real Eden. He’s really loved now. In fact he just won the Sportsman of the Year in Belgium.
‘On the pitch he seems to have more focus, more of a killer mentality,’ adds Terreur. ‘At the World Cup he realised he can reach the top even with his character. He’s never going to be a blood-chasing dog like Ronaldo, he will always be unselfish, but even in that unselfish manner he will get to the very top. He’s never been so decisive.’
Even for a man as modest as Hazard, it is immediately obvious as he starts to reflect on the World Cup, a few months later, just how much it meant to him.
‘We achieved a lot. The record for the Belgium national team was fourth place in ’86 in Mexico. People in Belgium used to talk about that a lot, and we beat them. We saw the happiness of the fans, the country was close. I felt so proud. To be the captain of this team was…special.
‘This day in the square in Brussels was something amazing. I will never forget this moment. I enjoyed the tournament from when we started against Panama til when we finished against England. We beat England twice – I need to mention that!
‘Also, I played a World Cup with my little brother! That gave me a lot of happiness. My parents were happy and proud.’
His parents and compatriots, his club’s supporters and team-mates, indeed the whole footballing world. Eden Hazard brings delight wherever he goes.
By Rupert Cane