Things don’t happen suddenly. Things don’t just change overnight. There are painstakingly long and complex processes that occur behind the curtains, which make the show on stage worth a watch. And the audience is mostly oblivious to them.
When Chelsea earned a hard-fought win over Middlesbrough on Sunday, courtesy a solo goal from Diego Costa, they went top of the Premier League table, a point above Liverpool and Manchester City.
Barely two months ago, Arsenal handed Chelsea a hiding: A 3-0 defeat that felt like a 6-0. Outplayed in every department, and spared further humiliation only as Arsenal held back towards the dying embers of the game, Chelsea felt a long way from home.
As coach Antonio Conte said, Chelsea had immense work ahead of them before they even start looking like a team fighting for a top-four berth. Since that defeat at the Emirates, Chelsea have won six games on the run, scored 17 goals in the process without conceding a single one. A defence that looked like a bad joke, with David Luiz serving as its proverbial punchline, has now kept six clean sheets on the run.
Switch to 3-4-3 pays off
The obvious difference has been the switch to 3-4-3, the three-man defence helped by the tireless work of wing-backs Marcos Alonso and a reborn Victor Moses. But the system has also, in his own words, liberated the true star of Chelsea, Eden Hazard. After a season where he was reduced to a meme, Hazard now looks imperious, unplayable almost.
It’s not just his seven goals and an assist, but the way he has taken over the attacking reins for Chelsea that has turned things around for the club. And it has not been an overnight transformation. Hazard did not wake up one morning and realise he is world-class.
Five months ago, Hazard walked into the European Championships a footballer diminished over the past year. Misfiring an entire season can dent a young and talented athlete’s confidence out of shape.
Hazard had shown signs of improvement towards the end of the season, but was nowhere near the player he was for Chelsea when they won the league in 2014-’15. He looked lively in the initial few games for Belgium in the summer, but still haunted by events of the past year and operating in the shadows of the new Belgian hope Kevin De Bruyne.
Then came the Round of 16 game against Hungary, where Hazard gave a performance for the ages. It was as if the man, repressed for the past year, was finally released from his cage, like a beast of the wild allowed to roam free.
Hazard danced around defenders with the grace of a gymnast, turned tricks at will, and set up a goal before scoring himself magnificently on the night. He was involved in almost every chance that Belgium created, becoming the fulcrum of the team’s attack.
Players like Hazard thrive when others around them start orbiting them. That night, the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku followed where Hazard led. It was the finest performance in the entire competition. Belgium marched into the quarter-finals with a 4-0 win.
Rejuvenated by the Euros
Hazard’s Euro campaign ended with four assists and a goal to his name. But more importantly, he had his confidence and pride back. There are two kinds of footballers. The ones who are supremely confident of their own abilities and aware of their weaknesses.
Nothing dents their belief in themselves. It often brings hubris to their nature and they are destined for greatness, but are equally susceptible to fall. Players like Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Then there are the ones who need a constant support system. They do not have the ability to pick themselves up after a bad 90 minutes. They might be supremely talented, but are susceptible to falling into a ditch of bad form.
Their confidence takes a hit and it becomes harder to get out of it. They need a hand. And there are clear differences in playing styles of the two as well. The former like to operate solo, the latter prefer paying with the team. Hazard belongs to the latter category.
A new man in a new system
Hazard came out of that ditch in the Euros. And it has translated into his performances for Chelsea this season. After a cautious but strong start to the season, he has now been one of finest players in Europe for the past six games.
The system suits him well as he doesn’t have to track back and fulfill defensive duties. Alonso, operating behind him, takes care of that. Hazard has to worry only about what’s ahead of him. Just what a forward should be worried about.
His average position in the five games preceding the one against Middlesbrough was higher up the field than Diego Costa’s. He has truly been liberated up front, operating through different points of attack and linking up naturally with a rejuvenated Pedro and Costa.
With Alonso and Moses operating as wing-backs, and Hazard and Pedro, Chelsea are mostly operating wide, which creates a lot of space in front of the opponent’s goal where their number 10 should play.
Chelsea currently do not have, neither do they need a number 10, thus relegating Cesc Fabregas and Oscar to the bench. It is Hazard who gets into that area constantly, with Alonso on the overlap, and creates chances on his either side.
And since he moves so much, he becomes a nightmare to track for defenders. And even though he didn’t score on Sunday, he was omnipresent, ever-involved in Chelsea’s endeavours. In fact, Hazard posted his highest possession score for the season against Middlesbrough.
Hazard is an enigmatic player. Considered as the next big thing when he arrived at Chelsea four years ago, he is yet to fully become the player he was destined to be. Somehow, it feels, he has always come with a clause attached to his name, especially for his critics: “on his day”.
Yes, on his day, Hazard is unplayable. On his day, he is the best attacking midfielder in the world. But if those days stretch out, if they keep coming, then everyday is his. And as we have seen over the past two months, that bodes quite well for Chelsea, and not so much for their rivals.