Chelsea and Tottenham shared the spoils in a cagey London derby at White Hart Lane yesterday, with both sides having chances but in the end having to contend with a point in a 0-0 draw.
José Mourinho will have been the happier of the two managers with the result, a sign of the Blues’ demise this term, and set up his side to absorb Spurs possession and pressure.
Although Mourinho’s decision will have had the Spain international’s questionable form and a midweek fallout in mind, it gave the Belgian a chance to feature in a new position.
One of the main surprises of Chelsea’s poor campaign to date has been the dip in form of last year’s Player of the Year Hazard, who has looked off the pace and had questions over his best position coined in the media and on the terraces.
His deployment as a striker in the game against Spurs means that it has been three different roles that the former Lille star has played in this season, alongside his usual left-wing berth and in the number ten position.
Mourinho claimed that the outing at White Hart Lane was both Chelsea and Hazard’s best of the season, labelling his star man ‘phenomenal’ in the draw – but where should the Belgian feature for the Blues?
Hazard’s showing as a striker in the draw with Tottenham was certainly a plus point for the visitors, with the Belgian seemingly motivated to prove a point to his manager.
The 24-year-old has been accused of not pulling his weight defensively in the past by Mourinho, but this accusation could not be thrown his way at full-time yesterday.
Hazard showed much more inclination to chase lost causes and close opposition defenders down in 90 minutes than Costa has all season, with his pace also keeping Spurs’ back four on their toes.
Much like Cristiano Ronaldo, who started as a winger but has developed with age into a player capable of featuring as a striker, the Belgian’s final destination could well be in a central role.
However, just as telling as his sharpness in possession and work ethic was the two chances that fell his way – which were not converted.
A rasping volley in the second half demonstrated immaculate technique and required a top-notch save from Hugo Lloris, but a first-half headed chance should have given the Blues a lead on enemy soil.
For Hazard, not scoring made it 22 Chelsea games without a goal, which in itself shows that the Belgian is not ready for a striker berth just yet.
This may seem like the most natural role for Hazard in the current Chelsea set-up, which has no lack of creative attacking midfielders to play centrally.
But, with the star not at his best this term in a wide role and his influence for both club and country being nullified on the flanks at times, it is my assertion that the 24-year-old’s long-term future should be in a central role behind a lone striker.
Mourinho has dispelled the suggestion that Hazard could play as a number ten on a prolonged basis, stating the examples of former charges such as Deco and Wesley Sneijder as ideal protagonists in the space between the lines.
It is true that the Belgian lacks the artistry and range of passing of the afore-mentioned schemers, but he makes up for this with incisive running and intelligence off the ball.
The Portuguese coach went against his own theory by playing Hazard in the number ten role against Norwich, which sparked a rejuvenation in both the player and his team in the recent 1-0 win.
The former Lille man looked dangerous on the ball, took up excellent positions that the Canaries struggled to shackle him in and provided an excellent link between the team’s midfield and attack.
Although it may not happen under Mourinho’s tenure at the club or until some years down the line, a player of Hazard’s ability is destined to operate in a central role where he can have more freedom of movement and added influence on the game.
Getting the star back to his best will be key if Chelsea are to avoid a catastrophic season, with Mourinho’s challenge of deciding the correct role for Hazard one of his biggest challenges currently.