Much of what fuels England’s rabid, explosively celebratory, often masochistic, sometimes even violent devotion to soccer is the country’s unique interpretation of the game. Their love of direct attacks, sliding-karate-kick tackles, and ceaseless running almost compels teams into wide-open matches with acres of space in which many of the world’s best players can dance and weave—basically, everything that makes the Premier League the most exciting league to follow. But this narrow view of what constitutes “real soccer” has also prevented players and playing styles of other types from receiving their proper due. Luckily, players like Eden Hazard are around to teach them a little something.
It’s widely accepted that Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is the best player in the Premier League, and for good reason. No one else in the league can rival his combination of touch, sinuous dribbling, surgical passing, and pinpoint finishing. He controls the opponent’s spacing, thrives when he slithers into open pockets, sucks defenders into his whirlpool to open lanes for teammates, and is still capable of zigging his way into scoring positions when it looks like he doesn’t even have enough room to lift his foot, let alone escort the ball past the mob of hacking legs and into the back of the net.
On Saturday’s match against Stoke City, Hazard completely controlled Chelsea’s attack. He set up seven shots for his teammates, including assisting Loïc Remy for the game-winning goal; sent in four shots of his own, one of which was a typically nerveless penalty to open the game’s scoring; and humiliated numerous Stoke defenders with his dribbling by darting past them a whopping nine times. WhoScored gave him a match rating of a perfect 10. Nobody who watched would argue.
The thing about Hazard’s game, though, is that what he does so well often isn’t recognized in the numbers. He’s undoubtedly on that level just behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, among those transcendent though not exactly all-time greats. But for an idol in a country so focused on “end product” and “cut-and-thrust” and “final balls,” Hazard doesn’t really put up the kind of stats you’d expect from his reputation. His 12 goals aren’t enough to get him into the top five of the league golden boot race, and his non-penalty goals per 90 minutes aren’t even in the top 30. Likewise, his seven assists in total are joint-eighth-most, but on a per 90 minutes basis also aren’t good enough to place him in the top 30.
His key passes fare better on a per 90 minute basis, ranking seventh in the league, and proof of his world-class dribbling is reflected in his fourth-best 4.9 successful dribbles per 90 (all per 90 stats with a minimum of 10 appearances), but none of these numbers are really the point. What matters with Hazard’s game is how overwhelmingly evident it is that, whenever he’s on the pitch, his talent is so enormous that the game revolves around him. Regardless of whether he touches the ball second-most of any Chelsea player, as was the case this weekend, or second-least, everything that happens in the Blues attack is warped by his play. There is (as yet) no number for how with a dip of the shoulder and a jerk of his head he can send a defender off into no-man’s-land anticipating a pass that never comes, or his uncanny ability to always manage to make that one decisive touch on the ball to evade an onrushing defender even when it looks like he’s overrun the thing.
When he directly adds to the scoresheet with goals and assists, it’s great, but even when it’s Diego Costa scoring one of his league-leading 19 goals or Cesc Fàbregas measuring one of his league-leading 16 assists, Hazard’s passing and movement and the focus he draws from defenders is regularly a vital part of his team’s play. His is a greatness that at this point can only be appreciated in living color rather than in the black and white stat sheets. It exists as something like a negative.
It’s probably no coincidence that Hazard has become this revered figure on a José Mourinho-coached team. When praising Hazard, it’s often an allegedly newfound commitment to tracking back and willingness to stick his boot out for a tackle from time to time at the behest of his defensive-minded manager that the media has pointed to as the last little bit pushing him from great to amazing. In reality, it’s been the continued improvement of his attacking skills that’s responsible for him hitting another level.
Even more important than his talent growth for educating the public that a guy that looks and plays like Hazard can be great, though, is the weekly exposure Brits have gotten to a flashy creator at his absolute peak on a team that actually wins things. England has a long tradition of doubting the abilities of the world’s premier attacking geniuses when they haven’t watched them play week-in, week-out. When Arsenal pick up another flair attacking mid, it’s often viewed as yet another reminder of why Arsène Wenger’s insistence on walking the ball into the net with a team of one-two aficionados doesn’t win at the highest level. When Mourinho puts together a superteam built around one such player and practically wraps up the Prem title two months into the season, it’s easier to accept that unquantifiable talents go a long way in putting points on the board, too.
For a long time, Barcelona and their “boring” possession- and movement-based game stood as the natural antithesis of English soccer. The thinking was that without the help of terrified, incompetent, bird-chested defenders in La Liga, the likes of Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi wouldn’t look nearly as good. Trot out those little fellas against a couple burly British center backs on the proverbial cold nights in Stoke, and they’d surely be muscled off the ball with ease.
(We should note that England’s vision of proper soccer isn’t totally without merit, as for generations the long ball game really was the best way to get the ball from your half into your opponents on pitches subjected to England’s weather. The issue arises when this historical reality becomes venerated into a moral virtue even when the circumstances change. For more on this, check out Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid.)
When players of this type—those who aren’t all industry and athleticism—have joined the league, they’ve often been critiqued to the point of absurdity, usually lamenting the absence of skills that were never part of the player’s game while overlooking what does actually make them effective. There’s no better example of this than Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, who has been regularly mocked as a flop despite usually being one of the best players on the pitch, and often the best, when healthy.
Players like Hazard and a cadre of others, very often from Spain, have thankfully been out here jolting Englishmen out of their slumber with their undeniable abilities. It’s hard to argue that the EPL is the only real proving ground for talent when guys like Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas, Alexis Sánchez, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, David Silva, Yaya Touré, Sergio Agüero, etc. have come in and almost immediately shown themselves to be the class of the league. And even the opinion on the much-maligned Özil has slowly grown towards acknowledgement of his considerable though subtle gifts, rather than lazy and inaccurate recriminations of his work-rate.
The more players like Hazard dazzle fans with immeasurable but eminently real skills, the easier it is for others to follow in their footsteps. Learning to appreciate what it is about Hazard and Özil that makes them great might even allow England to create a couple such players of their own.