The Belgian winger’s transformation last season from England’s vibrant, confident footballer of the year to a sulky, misfiring and distracted performer accused of helping get Jose Mourinho the sack was part of a mystery which gripped football and baffled most onlookers.
It may take an autobiography of some kind in future to finally reveal the inside track — but new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte appears to have found a way to put the past to bed.
Hazard has been consistently excellent this season and his goal against Burnley at the weekend, in which he ran all the way from the half-way line before passing a shot into the net from 20 metres, capped a sumptuous performance full of flicks, tricks and high-energy football.
Conte, who has clearly made it his mission to get Hazard back to normal, said: “Eden is a fantastic player. He has great talent and also I know he’s a good guy. What’s important is that he wants to improve and wants to work very hard to improve himself — and I am pleased about this.
“I want to work with my players to improve them and put them in the best condition to show their talent — and Hazard is one of those. There are others but above all I’m talking about the wingers. We have fantastic wingers who are all very good one-v-one, it’s important to put them in the best condition and I’m very happy for Eden. I’m pleased with his commitment but I can also tell you that his performance can improve.”
“It’s an important time for him,” added Conte. “Last season is the past but it’s important to remember, always, and to keep last season in our minds because when there is difficult situation it’s important to look back and find new strength to go forward.”
What will excite Hazard is Conte’s surprisingly attacking philosophy.
Far from being restricted by a traditional Italian desire to defend, the new Chelsea manager has instead shown a willingness to take risks.
The early-season victory over West Ham, secured in the last minute by Diego Costa, saw Chelsea playing 4-2-4 in the final stages and after securing their first clean sheet of the season on Saturday, Conte outlined his desire not to defend too deep.
”If I have to choose one way to defend I prefer to attack,” he said. “The best way to defend is to go forward. When you stay behind for too long the long ball, anything can happen.We are improving also in this aspect.”
First priority for Conte going into transfer deadline week remains signing experienced defender but for Burnley the picture is more complicated. Manager Sean Dyche is desperate for reinforcements, and already has Chelsea reserve striker Patrick Bamford in his sights, but admits finding the right players isn’t easy in the current market.
“We’re looking and we’re certainly active,” he said. “But there’s no guarantees. The new tv money has changed the market but that money can only be used immediately if you’ve got a backer who’s going to carry the can for the next three, four or five years. We’ve got wealthy people on the board but they’re not wealthy at the same level as the people here at Chelsea.”
Courtois 6; Ivanovic 7, Cahill 6, Terry 6, Azpilicueta 6; Kante 8; Willian 7 (Moses 76; 7), Oscar 7, Matic 6, Hazard 9 (Pedro 80; 7); Costa 6 (Batushuayi 80; 6),
Heaton 8, Lowton 5, Keane 6, Mee 6, Ward 6, Defour 6 (O’Neill 57; 7), Marney 6 (Tarkowski 72; 6), Arfield 6 (Gudmundsson 57; 6), Boyd 6, Vokes 5, Gray 5.
Mark Clattenburg 7