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October 4, 2018

Is Eden Hazard Making the Leap?

By Grace Robertson

Eden Hazard is on fire right now. Despite being eased back into action after the summer’s World Cup, he has six goals, making him the top scorer in the Premier League.

The Belgian’s raw talent has never been in doubt, nor has his ability to influence games. There aren’t many better sights in England’s top flight than watching Hazard glide past opponents with the ball at his feet. In the extremely conservative Chelsea sides managed by Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, he was often a one man attack, with the side completely reliant on him to progress the ball forward. Cesc Fabregas would offer decent creative passing from deep (when he played, which was not all the time), but the final third was very much Hazard’s terrain to do it all himself. That Chelsea were at all capable in attack last season is a huge credit to him. Still, there remained the feeling that he did not contribute the goals necessary to really place himself among the world’s best.

Until now? Hazard has started the season with six goals in 520 minutes, putting him ahead of anyone in England and behind only Neymar, Krzysztof Piatek and Andre Silva in Europe’s top five leagues on the goalscoring front. This represents 40% of Chelsea’s total goals scored, and doesn’t even include his late stunner to win the Carabao Cup tie against Liverpool. But how is Hazard doing this? Is it likely to continue? Is it evidence that he should now be counted alongside the very best in the world? With the help StatsBomb’s data, we can take a closer look at what he’s really doing.

 

More of a Goalscorer?

Hazard’s six goals have come from four open play strikes and two penalties. While he certainly has a talent from the spot, the number of penalties Chelsea accrue is, for the most part, out of his control. Considering he has already taken as many as he took in the whole of last season, it seems unlikely that Chelsea will maintain the current rate of winning spot kicks. So that leaves us with four goals, from a shot map that looks like this:

Yep, just 1.57 expected goals associated with the shots he’s taken. That’s quite a bit less impressive.

The good news for Hazard is, despite what some in the analytics community have claimed in the past but nonetheless fairly intuitively, not all finishers are of equal ability. There hasn’t been a huge amount of research into finishing skill, but what we have suggests that Hazard is better at it than most. Not only is it fairly evident that the Belgian has great technique when striking the ball, but his ability to dribble past opponents and create space for himself might also lead to his chances being a touch better than the model estimates. On the other hand, all of this was also true last season. And indeed, he did beat his expected goals total, but by a more reasonable amount:

Last year, he was scoring about 35% more than expected. Had this held true so far this season, he would have scored just two non-penalty goals so far. To draw an even closer comparison, his 0.27 expected goals per 90 minutes this season are identical to last year. It’s really difficult to find any evidence in the numbers that he is going to continue scoring the way he has been recently. And while Hazard may have been driving the goalscoring, this may not continue, as both Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud have so far produced more xG than the Belgian. Both have played fewer minutes than Hazard. This is good news for Chelsea, since a dip in Hazard’s finishing could be balanced out with Morata and Giroud finally finding their shooting boots.

 

So What Else Does He Do?

If we look at the StatsBomb radar (attacking midfielder/winger template) for Hazard comparing this season to last, it’s obvious that things are pretty similar:

The increase in pressure regains is possibly to be expected as he is now playing in more of a high pressing system, but it’s still pleasing to see that he can do it. While it is not shown on this radar, his deep progressions per 90 (passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third) have risen from 8.25 to 9.87, but this is also most likely an effect of Maurizio Sarri wanting his side to focus much more on dominating the ball and getting it into advanced positions. Broadly speaking, we are looking at the same player as last season.

Hazard is, to put it plainly, really good at football. He was the only player in the Premier League last season to achieve more than 3 dribbles per 90 (of those who played at least 2000 minutes). While another three players (Wilfried Zaha, Rajiv van La Parra and Ruben Loftus-Cheek) amassed over 2.5, none came close to combining the dribbling threat with Hazard’s deep progressions. When it comes to moving the ball into dangerous areas, there is simply no player in England’s top flight like Hazard. That he still manages to advance the ball so much and then add 0.28 xG assisted in open play is absurd. His status as one of the Premier League’s very best players should be in no doubt.

Just don’t expect him to be a prolific goalscorer. A curious thing about football is the general belief that the very best players are the ones who should be getting on the end of chances. A player like Mohamed Salah can develop from more of a provider in his Roma days to a consistent goalscorer at Liverpool, and this is widely seen as Salah improving. The period of Wayne Rooney’s career in which he received the most credit was between 2009 and 2012, after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo but before the signing of Robin van Persie. People thought more highly of him when he was Manchester United’s primary goal threat than predominantly as a creator for others. An almost pure assister like Mesut Ozil receives very little love.

Thus, it’s not a shock to see Hazard’s purple patch in front of goal as the moment when he is receiving the most praise of his career. Unless he starts taking significantly more high quality shots, his scoring rate will come back to Earth. It’s possible that Sarri may push him to evolve into less of a ball progressor and more of a conventional goalscoring wide player, as he has suggested he wants to, talking of a desire for Hazard to “spend less energy far from goal play in the last 25 metres of the field”. Thus far, though, there has not been evidence of this in the numbers. If he keeps doing the things he has been doing so far this year we will be left with merely the brilliant passing, dribbling and creating talent we know well. And that could still be more than enough to help power Chelsea to a very strong season.

 

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Article by Grace Robertson