The opening act of Frank Lampard’s tenure at Stamford Bridge has so far been a tempestuous affair, with the budding optimism brought upon by the ebullience of youth being countered by a pervasive defensive fragility and lack of experience.
From the moment Gary Caldwell clattered into Eden Hazard with a thunderous challenge during his debut against Wigan, the Belgian’s toughness and durability was well established.
There were no histrionics or play-acting, but understandable writhing and wincing after his Premier League initiation from the Latics captain.
Of course, by then, he had already gloriously turned Ivan Ramis in the centre circle and slipped in an inch perfect ball for Branislav Ivanovic to convert, then did Ramis a second time in the Wigan box to win a penalty to demonstrate his precocious creative talents.
After Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, the Premier League has had the privilege of witnessing a genuinely world-class talent over the last seven years. Hazard has always been compared unfavourably with his contemporaries like Neymar, Mo Salah and Kylian Mbappe, who have consistently scored 25-plus goals in recent years compared to Hazard who has only just reached a career high tally of 21 goals last campaign.
However, this should not detract from the fact that 110 goals and 92 assists in 352 appearances for Chelsea is a formidable record and highlights a key distinguishing factor between Hazard and his rivals – his highly underrated ability as a playmaker.
The Belgian’s passing was always excellent when combining with the likes of Juan Mata and Oscar during the early years, but over time, the level of incision in his passing has blossomed into an appreciably greater force than most of his contemporaries.
This is a key trait that many observers seem to have undervalued when assessing Hazard’s overall value and impact as an all-round attacking force.
Mo Salah is a prolific goal-scorer as well as a constant danger with his direct bursts into the box, but he does not possess the requisite vision or passing prowess to consistently facilitate attacking movements as Hazard does.
In any case, Hazard’s numbers are not so far off other world-class players. The recently retired former Chelsea winger Arjen Robben spent ten glorious seasons at Bayern Munich with 144 goals in 309 appearances, and although the legendary Dutchman suffered plenty of injuries throughout his career, his goal return of 14.4 goals per season sits lower than Hazards 15.7 goals over seven seasons at Chelsea.
Many have observed a certain mentality and selfishness found in players such as Ronaldo to reach the 40-50 goal mark each season. Hazard’s natural instinct has hints of a street footballer, to enjoy and love the ball – share it, be selfless, bring people into the game and unleash individual brilliance when necessary.
This is the trade-off for Hazard not pursuing personal glory and goals, instead embracing an attacking efficiency that benefits the whole team and not just one man.
The numbers illustrate this perfectly. Since 2012, Hazard has created the most chances in the Premier League (595), completed more than 900 dribbles (nearly 50% more than the next player) and was fouled 638 times (more than 40% than anyone else) and all this by playing the second most games (245) in the league, just one game behind David de Gea.
We can see the enormous courage the former Blue possessed in taking on the responsibility with the ball at his feet and enduring relentless punishment from defences to win fouls, create chances and bring the team forward.
Most importantly, just like Lionel Messi, the Belgian superstar has always taken it all on the chin and maintained a reputation as an honest player, something that cannot be said of some of his rivals.
If not exactly a great goal-scorer, Hazard was certainly a scorer of great goals during his time at Stamford Bridge. In his last season alone, there were some cracking strikes such as the last minute equaliser against Wolves and stunning solo goals against West Ham and Liverpool.
As a three-time Chelsea goal of the year winner, there is no shortage of spectacular goals from the archives – the left-foot pile driver against Stoke, the dazzling solo at Anfield, the title-denying curler against Tottenham, and the spectacular Francis Coquelin career-ending solo against Arsenal just to name a few.
Big goals against big teams reinforces Hazard’s big-game pedigree much like Chelsea legends of years gone by.
Then we get to the trophies. Two league titles, two Europa League titles, the FA Cup and the League Cup is a considerable haul in an era that has been largely dominated by Manchester City, and especially given Hazard’s lack of world-class talent around him.
With the exception of Juan Mata and Diego Costa, Hazard has not played with attacking players befitting his reputation as one of the world’s greatest players. It is also a set of achievements that is comparable to even the great Cristiano Ronaldo – multiple league titles, European glory, cups and cup final goals such as the 2018 FA Cup final and the 2019 Europa League final.
Hazard’s scale of influence, achievement and longevity are befitting of all-time Premier League great status, as well as firmly entrenching his Chelsea legend status. Whether you compare him to the likes of Frank Lampard or Thierry Henry, Hazard’s intangible qualities as well as his unique and rare talents as a footballer make him a revered figure at Chelsea and the Premier League.
We have to remember that Hazard has done it the hard way, shouldering much of the responsibility of bringing success to Chelsea on his own shoulders for most of his tenure.
Furthermore, the newly signed Real Madrid man is a player that England has not quite seen before, with his Lionel Messi-esque ability to waltz through defences in a manner only those gifted with a low centre of gravity can master. There are no step-overs or tricks and flicks, just an unapologetic menacing that is as persistent as it is potent.
The Messi comparisons are not to suggest Hazard is the greatest Premier League player of all time, but you have to be something special to be the closest thing to Lionel Messi England will probably ever see.
His gifts as a scorer, creator, entertainer and leader are indicative of a player who could succeed in any era, and it is these qualities that make him unique in the pantheon of Premier League greats.
Hazard has the longevity, trophies and x-factor required to be considered an all-time great. A criticism might be that he didn’t quite live up to the astronomical potential some set out for him – the 30-40 goals a season and Ballon d’Or-winning exploits never came to fruition.
However, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. He is also neither a Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp or Ryan Giggs, some of the greatest names in Premier League history.
Perhaps this is because the free spirit and street football feel that has come to characterise Hazard’s style has not always served his best interests when it comes to having the will and desire to be the best in the world.
Or perhaps there has not been enough sympathy and sensitivity in acknowledging the lack of genuine world-class talent that has supported him throughout his years at Stamford Bridge, minus Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas in the 2014-15 title-winning squad.
This reality has ultimately prevented him from realising his full potential. In an era of Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, it is a minor miracle to think Chelsea snatched two titles away from the Etihad.
However, that is the measure of a man who has helped shape and inspire the modern Chelsea to continued success more than any other Blues player post the Terry-Lampard-Drogba era.