This might just be Hazard’s breakout season. This might be a bold thing to say about someone who has won so many titles (individual and collective) but this might be the year he gets that recognition as one of the top 5 footballers in the world. Hazard has only scored more than 20 goals in one season of his career so far but Sarri has talked about him scoring 40 goals, pundits are raving about his performances- calling him the best player in the Epl and he has talked about being on his best form since the beginning of the World Cup. But what exactly has been the key to Hazard’s form? Liberation. Sarri’s style has liberated him but there is something more to it than Sarri’s tactics and that thing is Mateo Kovacic.
Every Chelsea fan remembers 19th of May (mostly for 2012 and not 2018) as the FA cup final against Manchester United and Antonio Conte had set up his team with his backup 352 formation. Olivier Giroud and Hazard up top with a midfield bank of Tiemoue Bakayoko, N’golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas and flanked by Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses. Chelsea’s midfield was constantly bypassed with ruthless abandon while Giroud barely got any service. Everything Chelsea considered an attack on that day was schemed, orchestrated and executed by Hazard. Chelsea to a large extent lacked their capacity to create so everything had to be passed to their little Belgian to work wonders. Hazard did score on that day after being brought down in the penalty area by Phil Jones. Fast forward to 29th of September and it’s the game against Liverpool in the Epl. David Luiz ends a Liverpool attack and shifts the ball out to Jorginho, from Jorginho to Kovacic and then Hazard is put through on goal and scores.
The goalscoring improvement in Hazard’s game can be explained in this simple passage of play. Under Sarri, with Kovacic and Jorginho, Hazard can afford to stay up top and attack space between Trent Alexander Arnold and Joe Gomez rather than drop deep to create for his other teammates leaving that space useless. Under Mourinho and Conte, Hazard had to constantly drop deep to orchestrate play but with one man wrecking ball- Mateo Kovacic, Hazard can now afford to attack space rather than trying to create and leaving space ahead of him empty. Kovacic is a driving force who can use his quick feet combined with power to carry the ball up some 60 yards. Sarri talked about Hazard conserving his energy and using it in the final 30 metres of the pitch and Kovacic is key to this. Hazard may be gaining the plaudits and Jorginho’s passing numbers may be awe inspiring but Kovacic is the driving force that has allowed Hazard to use his space rather than running round and trying to create it.
In the build up to that Liverpool game, when Jurgen Klopp was pressed about whether he had special plans to stop Hazard, he highlighted Kovacic “running like a Formula One car”. The way he glides around evading tackles and body checks is the way you’d expect a Formula One car to evade bends on a race track, it’s like he anticipates the tackles before they make it. A ball retention specialist (95% passing accuracy in the Epl) with ability to drive his team up to the opposition box, he is exactly what Hazard needs to free up space. We have all made fun of Nemanja Matic and Fred freeing Paul Pogba but this is an example of how it is actually supposed to work, allowing Hazard to be closer to the opposition goal where he can be more of a ‘decisive’ threat. Teams know that even if they manage to shackle Hazard, they are one powerful run/drive away from trouble. He is also very useful in Chelsea playing out from the back. Thibaut Courtois was fond of trying to hit long balls into Marcos Alonso which he’d head down for Hazard as trying to play out with Tiemoue Bakayoko was simply inviting trouble. Against Cardiff, with the Welsh team leading through a Sol Bamba goal, Kovacic took the ball and drove about 30 metres with some intricate one-two’s with teammates before Neil Etheridge (a former Chelsea youth player) saved his shot. Cardiff City had just scored, were in the ascendance and were smelling blood but that powerful run reestablished Chelsea’s dominance before Hazard went on to score his hat trick. Hazard and Kovacic on the left side of Chelsea will put the fear of God into any team they come up against. His neo playmaking style has released Hazard from playmaking duties which shifted him further from goal. Sarri’s tactics have freed Hazard and prevented him from dropping deep.
Football is a game of space. Creating space, running into space, closing space etc and Kovacic is a master with his use of it. He brings a certain balance to this Chelsea side in attack and defense that allows others around to flourish. For all I’ve mentioned about him driving forward, his defensive nous cannot be understated, allowing Alonso to also push up the pitch. He can pass, defend, dribble out of tight spaces (he completed 96.15% of the dribbles he attempted last season) and this allows players to attack the space ahead. Even though he might have 3 goals and 8 assists in the last 3 seasons, his style of play brings more out of this Chelsea side than goalscoring threat Barkley and hat trick hero Ruben Loftus Cheek could ever.