Commentary

A lucrative season to forget at Chelsea for Eden Hazard

Eden Hazard’s inexplicably awful season at Stamford Bridge has mirrored that of his club, and the fact the Belgian star has never been a more valuable commodity -- even though England’s reigning Player of the Year hasn’t scored a league goal for Chelsea since May -- reflects the absurd nature of soccer's transfer market.

Hazard’s precipitous fall from grace would probably be a bigger story if it weren't for Leicester City, Tottenham, and Chelsea’s implosion as champion, which included the firing of Jose Mourinho. There’s plenty of blame to spread around at Stamford Bridge, still, it's the lights that shine brightest whose absence is most conspicuous.

The numbers. Hazard had 14 league goals and nine assists a season ago. He led the Premier League in key passes and fouls drawn, leading Europe’s top leagues in successful dribbles per game -- but over two thirds of the way through this campaign, Hazard has just two assists, and zero goals in league play.

A season ago, Hazard posted the second-best Whoscored rating in England over the last six years, and only Lionel Messi posted a higher rating in the UEFA Champions League group stages. This season, Hazard has his lowest rating of his career in both competitions (Squawka’s analysis provides similar results).

Hazard did not score his first, and only, goal of this season until the last day of January, when he converted an inconsequential penalty in a 5-1 FA Cup win over MK Dons, though he still has a ways to match the worst season by a reigning PFA Player of the Year, Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick on a paying customer at Crystal Palace that probably cost Manchester United a title in 1995 is hard to top.

Words, words and more words. Last February, with Chelsea cruising to a Premier League title and just days away from playing at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16, Eden Hazard signed a five and a half year contract extension making him one of the highest paid players in the world (at approximately $15 million per year), and Hazard’s coach spoke of their bright future together.

"It shows he believes in the club's coaching staff and players to help him become the best player in the world,” said Jose Mourinho.

Earlier this week, with Chelsea 20 points behind Leicester City and just days away from playing at PSG in the UCL round of 16, Hazard told Le Parisien that it would be “difficult” to turn down a move to PSG or other elite Champions League contenders, calling that title his biggest goal. Upon hearing this, his new coach responded.

"Well, he has a contract that he extended but first he must get fit and show he is a top player and then for Chelsea, which is a top club, he can be of huge value," Gus Hiddink told Sky Sports. "

Others have been less diplomatic in their criticism of the 25-year-old midfielder who was named to a league Team of the Year the last six seasons (three in France and three in England). Five seasons ago, Belgium's then national team coach Georges Leekens criticized Hazard publicly for being lazy, and Rudi Garcia, his coach at Lille that season, kept him out of the starting lineup until November. Hazard was also among those accused of trying to get Mourinho fired.

Whatever the truth, Mourinho’s popularity, Hazard's decision to flirt openly with other clubs and his poor performance in Chelsea’s 2-1 loss in Paris didn’t go over well. A poll this week by The Evening Standard saw 66 percent of fans vote in favor of selling him.

"I think he has been caught up in the season he had," said Tony Cascarino this week, former Chelsea player and Ireland international. "Real Madrid were chasing him down. Zinedine Zidane has made it openly clear that he loves him as a player. I think he has had his head turned and he has not quite put in the shifts that are required -- even when you are a great player."

On Wednesday, Roy Keane gave his opinion, in his own imitable fashion.

“Chelsea will have a battle on their hands because people must already be talking to Hazard. It happens,” Harry Redknapp wrote today. “As I’ve said before, I had a meeting as Spurs boss with Hazard in a Paris hotel when he was at Lille. … Most big deals happen that way, let’s not kid ourselves. One club doesn’t ring another club any more. Every club could be hauled up before Fifa or the FA because everyone breaks the rules."

“But Chelsea have to find a way to keep Hazard. They saw the perfect example of what could happen in Paris on Tuesday night,” Redknapp continued. “Manchester United decided to sell Angel di Maria after a poor season but he is now thriving at PSG -- what a ball he played for their winning goal. Look at United’s team now. Can you seriously tell me Di Maria wouldn’t walk into that side?”

Two weeks ago Hazard opened up about his disappointing season, and how he frequently leans on a Chelsea legend now plying his trade in MLS.

“He’s always backed me,” said Hazard, referring to Didier Drogba. “I’m not sure whether he’d ever experienced periods like that in his career, but I’ve always considered him a bit like a big brother. He’s there for me, whether it’s a text message or a phone call, and he’s helped raise my spirits. But I’ve never doubted myself.”

“This is the first time this has happened to me, but it was always going to happen at some stage. You have to learn from it. I’m a human being, not a machine. I’ve been a professional since I was 16, so maybe that has had an influence too.”

The interview noted, when Hazard turned 25 in early January he’d already played 446 senior games for clubs and country, more than Messi (431) or Cristiano Ronaldo (407) at that same age.

Funny money. Fans who are sick of overpaid athletes avoiding consequences may want to skip this section, because Hazard could easily come out smelling like a rose.

Hazard has been compared to Belgian legend Enzo Scifo, a more modern comparison might be Franck Ribery, with a style of play that could be easily incorporated into any of the world’s best teams -- and even in the midst of his worst season, market rates for players have risen so dramatically they've likely exceeded any decline in his valuation, aka Hazard would probably cost more now than he did last May, when he scored his last EPL goal.

Transfermarkt puts Hazard's current value at $78 million, tied for 8th in the world with Robert Lewandowski, the CIES Football Observatory study in January put Hazard’s value at $141 million, slightly down, but Ronaldo’s fell further, and the study named Hazard the third most valuable player in the world, behind only Messi and Neymar (with factors like age and contract length weighing heavily).

Nobody has exact figures, but almost every significant player who's changed hands recently has done so for more than "market value," and Hazard is elite.

Meaning Hazard could easily cash Chelsea’s checks while mailing in the rest of the season before gliding out the door into the welcoming arms of one of Europe’s superpowers, before promptly resuming production at a level commensurate with his talent, probably after Belgium makes a deep run at the Euros in France this summer.

While Chelsea fans of the reigning champion Blues could easily start next season without their coach, in Mourinho, their captain, in John Terry, and England’s most valuable transfer target, in Eden Hazard.

1 comment about "A lucrative season to forget at Chelsea for Eden Hazard ".
  1. R2 Dad, February 19, 2016 at 11:21 a.m.

    JM had a small squad last year and ran everyone into the ground while winning the league. With the Euros coming up and the league title out of reach, why kill yourself? EH got nothing but kicked every match last year--the referees didn't want to protect him, and JM cried wolf too many times. There is a whole lot less kicking of Hazard this year so he should be in better shape come June. Did Abromovich promise a bigger squad this year then not come through? There is more to this story.

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