Why Eden Hazard isn't ready for a move to Real Madrid
Despite English football’s inflated sense of self-worth, it must accept it has effectively become a finishing school for Spain's biggest clubs in the past decade. Players are polished in the Premier League, their talent expands until the point that it eclipses all else in the division, and then they move to Real Madrid or Barcelona.
There is a consistent, predatory pattern at play. In 2013-14, Luis Suarez performed a season-long detonation on Premier League defences, scoring 31 goals and claiming 12 assists, and was bought by Barcelona for £75 million. Twelve months previously it was Gareth Bale, with 21 goals, who ripped teams asunder and earned an £86m move to Real Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry established the trend. Two players who were indisputably the best in the Premier League sought the greater validation that only Real Madrid or Barca could offer. They graduated from England to Spain and Bale and Suarez followed the same path. The power dynamic at play is achingly clear.
After Eden Hazard was handed the PFA Player of the Year award for 2014-15, the issue now is whether he is ready to take the same step. The matter of a move to Madrid was put to him even as he was clutching the trophy in his hands at the Grosvenor hotel last night, and was spurned with a diplomatic rebuttal: “No, I’m staying.”
While the supersized talents of Henry, Ronaldo, Bale and Suarez had outgrown the Premier League, Hazard has not exhibited the same kind of dominance. That’s not to say he isn't the best player in England. He most likely is. But Hazard has not reached the same exquisite plane of existence as his predecessors. He hasn’t dismantled the division in quite the same way.
There is much to commend him though. Hazard has had the biggest influence on the title-winners elect; he has won more points through his goals and assists than any player other than Harry Kane; and his mastery of the ball, one-on-one brilliance and clinical, cold-blooded calm in the final third have been distinguishing features of the Premier League season.
And yet, his total contribution of 13 goals, two of which were penalties, and eight assists is hardly epochal. Alexis Sanchez, also shortlisted for the PFA award, has scored 14 times without the benefit of taking any penalties and also has eight assists. Hazard is the better player, but in what has hardly been a vintage season for individual excellence, he hasn’t needed to be truly exceptional to elevate himself above the rest
When his two prime rivals for the PFA prize are a goalkeeper and a kid whose season for Tottenham looks a sublime aberration compared to the rest of his career, it says something about the campaign we have had. It is not even as though Hazard has enjoyed a great leap forward himself: 12 months ago, when winning the Young Player of the Year award, Hazard accumulated 14 goals and seven assists in one fewer start than he has enjoyed this time.
The removal of Suarez from the equation has lowered the bar for greatness in the Premier League and Hazard has profited. In no way was this an iconic season. He’s decided games with regularity – and created more chances than any other player – but Hazard hasn’t left an indelible imprint in the manner that Suarez, Bale, Ronaldo and Henry did before him.
Hazard has not outgrown England yet. When he scored 20 league goals and got 16 assists for Lille in 2011-12 it was clear his talent had transcended France. But to do the same in England, a player who actively invites comparisons with Ronaldo and Lionel Messi clearly needs to score more goals. Next season he needs to have a truly transformative campaign if he is to demand, through his performances, a promotion to one of the two Liga titans.
Paul Scholes made the point in his column in The Independent recently: “One thing I do wonder with Hazard is whether he has that hunger to score goals that you see in Ronaldo, Messi and [Luis] Suarez. Those are players who have a ferocious appetite to put the ball in the net. They're unstoppable. Hazard seems to me to be a relatively gentle soul. One who is just as happy skipping past a couple of opponents and putting it on a plate for a team-mate. In this modern age, if he wishes to challenge the achievements of Messi and Ronaldo then he will have to prove that he can match their relentless desire to score goals.”
The key question is whether Mourinho and his system will enable Hazard to unlock his goalscoring potential in such a way. Can he exhibit this kind of selfish streak when playing for a manager who champions a team ethic over any individual aspiration, a man who played Samuel Eto’o as a winger?
Hazard will never be afforded the kind of cavalier attacking role that Brendan Rodgers granted Suarez. Mourinho is too dogmatic and inflexible. Perhaps a better role model would be Bale, who thrilled in 2012-13 in a more rigid system under Andre Villas-Boas, another Mourinho acolyte who, unlike Rodgers, is more attuned to his former mentor’s conservative implementation of match strategies.
Hazard is certainly talented enough to play for Real Madrid. But to command a place in their attack is to invite untold amounts of pressure onto your shoulders, when a failure to make the right pass to Ronaldo can get you whistled in your own stadium. As criticism directed at Bale and Karim Benzema has shown in recent seasons, it also demands the highest of standards and a consistency and volume of goals that Hazard, at present, is not delivering.
Perhaps Real Madrid will try to sign him this summer, but it is hard to see who Hazard would displace in their first XI. Meanwhile, he still has room to grow in the Premier League; an English education remains unfinished. Spain should wait, for now.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport