Will Hazard Start To Heed His Warnings?

Jose Mourinho may have been criticised for threatening to alienate Eden Hazard, but Matt Stanger thinks the Chelsea manager has a point. Marc Wilmots certainly agrees...

Last Updated: 15/05/14 at 17:16 Post Comment

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"Eden knows what I expect from him. I don't tolerate one moment of loosening. If I feel one day his state of mind is not right, I will do it without him."

More criticism from Jose Mourinho? No, that was Belgium coach Marc Wilmots speaking in March, one month before Chelsea's Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid prompted Mourinho to question Hazard's lack of sacrifice for the team. The Chelsea manager isn't the only one who thinks the 23-year-old must work a lot harder to fulfil his potential.

Hazard thinks highly of himself, and rightly so, but there is a fear that he is over-estimating his current level of performance, which dropped considerably as Chelsea's campaign fizzled out. Mourinho reminded his protege that he expects more from him next year when he presented him with the club's player of the year award this week, before Hazard quipped to his losing teammates: "Maybe next season you have to work a little bit more." It was an occasion to savour, but a month ago Chelsea were within touching distance of much bigger trophies.

It has been a good season for Hazard, but not the great one he and Mourinho were hoping for. A record of 14 goals in the Premier League was bettered by ten players - including Jay Rodriguez, who plays in a similar positon for Southampton - with four of the Belgian's strikes delivered from the spot and only three coming against teams in the top nine. His tally of seven assists is four fewer than in the previous campaign as Hazard struggled to adapt to the strict demands of Mourinho's system.

The crux of Mourinho's complaint is that Hazard should be more diligent in his defensive duties, affording greater protection to Cesar Azpilicueta on the left and dropping deep to begin counter-attacks. Considering the way in which he alienated Juan Mata at the start of the season, it might seem that the Portuguese is being too fastidious in his treatment of Chelsea's creative players, but his opinion of Hazard is shared by others who know the Belgian well.

"He has technique, explosiveness and positioning," said vice-president of the Belgian FA, Philippe Collin, shortly after Hazard arrived at Stamford Bridge. "At some point he will have to work on defending, and he has no choice with that. But I have confidence that Marc Wilmots will occasionally give him a kick up his ass."

Collin's words may have been tongue-in-cheek but the message was serious. Hazard starred in three seasons at Lille, winning a league and cup double in 2010/11 and back-to-back Player of the Year awards, but there is a sense that success has caused him to become complacent. The protracted nature of his decision over which club to join in the summer of 2012 encouraged the idea that this is a player whose ego rivals his talent, with Hazard eventually tweeting: 'I'm signing for the Champions League winner'.

It was a significant step-up that Hazard seemed to take in his stride but, to reach the height of his ambition, he faces an even greater climb. "Of course I want to be the best in the world," he said in January. "Since I'm here at Chelsea, I've become more aware of my qualities. Before I knew I was a good player, but not one of the better players in the world. Now I realise that I can compete with Messi and Ronaldo in the near future, if I put in some more effort." That effort has not always been forthcoming, much to Mourinho and Wilmots' frustration.

The most worrying aspect of Hazard's development is that he has refused to heed his many warnings. When he was substituted in Belgium's World Cup qualifying win over Serbia in October 2012, Wilmots offered words of support that indicated a willingness to show patience with his star player. "Eden should know that in football today changing from defence to attack and from attack to defence are essential," he said. "But I support him. Step by step, we will get there."

However, 18 months on the same concerns persist, with both Wilmots and Mourinho tired of Hazard's laissez-faire, or downright lazy, attitude towards defending. Compared to Willian's phenomenal workrate and the tireless tracking of Oscar, who also suffered a drop in form in the final weeks of the campaign, Hazard looks positively horizontal. His is not the contribution one would expect from a player who hopes to rival Ronaldo and Messi.

Hazard's record of five goals in 43 international matches highlights another area in which he can improve, with Wilmots pointedly remarking that "two of them were penalties". But for Mourinho, the frustration runs much deeper. The moment Hazard enjoys a run of form, headlines emerge linking the playmaker to PSG, a distraction that has clearly played a part in his lack of progress. Perhaps the safety blanket of this interest is holding him back, but does Hazard really want to be a big fish in a small pond again rather than fighting at the top of one of Europe's toughest leagues?

"Everyone expects more from me," he said in January. "I hear it every day. Maybe I need these little comments, too. When a manager always says 'Eden, you're doing great', there is a threat that you can snooze. As a professional, you have to challenge yourself every day."

He might know how to say the right things, but two years have passed since he moved to England and both Mourinho and Wilmots remain unconvinced that Hazard is truly ready to learn. Given the manner in which his season ended, it appears the Belgian is at a crossroads: should he stay and fight at Chelsea or seek to push through a move to Paris? In truth, neither decision will matter unless he finally begins to appreciate the varied demands of his position. Mourinho may be criticised for threatening to alienate his most talented player but, in the case of Hazard, he might have a point.

Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.

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