I watched every second of the Chelsea vs Huddersfield demolition job last Saturday. Specifically, I watched it on a big projector screen outdoors in a Bangkok bar which seemed to be run by a dog. Really, you should’ve seen how that little guy swaggered around the place.
It was another little guy, however, who dominated proceedings on the screen. Hazard was sensational. He was at his very best, doing all those Hazard things he loves to do – driving straight at the defence, getting wicked, low shots away, playing lightning fast one-twos, and so on. He ended up with two goals and an assist.
It was an exciting display, but it wasn’t impressive. They were playing against Huddersfield, a team standing on the very edge of the plank looking down into a circling mass of sharks.
Hazard’s performance had skills and speed and trickery and results. But, afterwards, the feeling I was left with was the one I’m usually left with when I watch Hazard: frustration.
A friend and I were sitting in
Spoons a high-end bar recently, chatting football. I asked him who he though the best player in the Premier League was right now. We both agreed on De Bruyne.
Then I asked him about the most talented player in the league. We both agreed Hazard had to be in the discussion. Personally I’d have him second behind KDB, but I wouldn’t fight you on it.
At the top, top, top level, though, talent only gets you so far. It makes you incredibly rich and famous… but it doesn’t make you one of the greats. You need the outstanding mental abilities too for that. Specifically, the almost psychopathic drive and determination for consistency that makes someone play to the full extent of their ability every, single, game.
Hazard hasn’t got that. He just doesn’t. Messi and Ronaldo do, to state the obvious. De Bruyne does. Aguero does. Salah does. Go back through history, and I’d bet just about every great player had it.
The greats don’t go through “spells”. They impact almost every game in a meaningful way. Even if they don’t score or assist, you’re constantly aware that they’re there. Hazard goes missing. And not just in odd games – he’ll do it for weeks in a row.
Or longer than that, even. Which brings us to…
The Premier League-biased case for Hazard to be considered a top three player in the world died the season after it was truly born.
In 2014/15, Hazard was dominant. He started all 38 games (an impressive achievement in itself), scored 14 goals, and registered nine assists. Chelsea won the title at a canter, and Hazard – unsurprisingly – won both player of the season awards.
He’d started off hot at Chelsea, and only gotten better each season. It seemed we might have our first Premier League superstar since Ronaldo. It seemed he could actually break into the “Messi, Ronaldo, X” conversation.
Then, he decided to take a season off. An entire season. In 31 appearances (five as a sub), he got only four goals and three assists. His WhoScored rating – a nice, quick-look barometer of a player’s all-round performance across a season – was 7.96 in 14/15. As a reference point, Mo Salah – for his record-breaking, history-making season in 17/18 – had a 7.97 rating. In 15/16, Hazard’s rating plummeted to 7.11.
I watched plenty of football that season, my passion for the Prem reinvigorated on the back of Leicester City’s improbable title run, like just about every other fan of the English top flight. I watched plenty of Hazard. And I remember that it looked – apologies for the lack of poesy – as if he simply couldn’t be arsed.
Why did this happen?
As far as I can tell… he just didn’t like the coach.
In how many other professions are you able to decide, “I don’t like my boss. I’m just going to mail it in for an entire year”? Now, imagine you’re paid hundreds of thousands of pounds per week. Imagine you’ve got millions of people around the world cheering you on; at the very least, expecting you to just… try. Now imagine thinking, “I don’t like my boss. I’m just going to mail it in for an entire year.”
Maybe there’s a historical precedent for another “great” player doing this. In their prime. But I can’t think of it.
I’ve got two modern “greats” on my Unforgivable Crimes list.
To be clear, these are purely sporting crimes. Judgement on Ronaldo, for example, is pending… although it doesn’t look promising.
One is Yaya Toure. On his day, he was probably the most dominating, all-round player we’ve seen in the past decade of the Prem.
In 2015/16, after years of under-performing in the competition, Manchester City reached the semi-final of the Champions League. They drew Real Madrid, who’d won it in 13/14, and looked comfortably superior on paper. Eek.
Except… City managed to get a 0-0 draw at the Etihad. The tie was perfectly poised. They went to the Bernabeu with an excellent team, and every chance of making the final. I was very, very excited for that game.
And Yaya just phoned it in. He jogged around the pitch, even more slowly than he usually did. I don’t think he chased after a ball, or a player, the whole evening. He had a reputation for being lazy, but he’d still usually pop up with enough moments of magic – enough sudden bursts of unstoppable drive, force and technique combined – to turn a match. In this game, Yaya didn’t come close. I don’t say this lightly, considering the occasion, but he honestly didn’t seem to care.
City lost 1-0. Real Madrid won the trophy.
I’ve never forgotten that game. Yaya had a great career in the Premier League, but that performance is the first thing I think about when his name’s brought up. Not that he cares, whatsoever… but I’ll never forgive him for that.
It’s the same story with Hazard. He’s done, and continues to do, great things in the Prem. But I’ll never forget the season he took off. In a footballing sense, it’s unforgivable. Now, still, he continues to pick his games. He’s an immensely talented player… but, for that reason alone, he’ll never go down as one of the greats.
(Never mind, though – he’s now decided he’s going to play for Real Madrid anyway, and get a pay rise, and become more famous and popular than ever. So who cares about all that trying stuff, right?)