Was Eden Hazard the last of the great Premier League mavericks?

Eden Hazard celebrates scoring against Arsenal

This latest international break kicked off with the sad if not unsurprising news of Eden Hazard’s retirement at the age of 32 after years of injuries, which should not dim the light on an otherwise-brilliant career from one of the most talented and joyful players of his generation.

Hazard’s move to Real Madrid in 2019, which at £88m plus add-ons remains the club’s record transfer fee, was meant to see the Belgian step foot on a stage where he always belonged, but instead would mark the beginning of the end of his career at an age (28) when he should have been in his prime.

Like a fellow boy wonder – Wayne Rooney – Hazard had burned so bright from such a young age that his body gave up on him in the end.

The player himself made mention of his 16-year-long and 700-plus-game career, which at 32 is a staggering number. Consider only 76 of his 635 club games came in four years in the Spanish capital, the toll his body took in such a short span is incredible.

Again, like Rooney, questions could be asked about his off-field dedication to fitness and nutrition but in a sense, that’s what made Hazard even more enjoyable and endearing in the modern game.

When he was in his pomp, both at Lille and Chelsea, there was few better entertainers, match-winners and genuine ballers in the sport.

After making his first-team debut for the French club in late 2007, he soon became the star of the show in his first full season under new manager and now-Napoli gaffer Rudi Garcia (for how much longer?), becoming the club’s youngest ever scorer and the first non-French player to win Ligue 1 young player of the year.

It would only mark the beginning of a stunning few years for the player in a city not far from the Belgian border, with double digits coming in both goals and assists for his final three seasons in France.

The 2010/11 season saw him win the first of two consecutive Player of the Year awards as he led Lille to their first league title since 1954 and their first French Cup since 1955. It also marked the first and only domestic double in the club’s history. With PSG being bought by Qatar in the summer that followed, it was a fairy-tale end to fairness in the French top flight.

At this point, it was a question of when and not if Hazard would move to a bigger club in a bigger league and after a staggering 22 goals and 22 assists in the 2011/12 season, his stock could not have been higher.

All the leading lights in the Premier League were after him, and in a showcase of the growing influence of social media at the time, he famously announced on Twitter that he would be taking his talents to Chelsea a la Lebron James and ‘The Decision’, which took place two years before.

His arrival was a major coup for Chelsea, who had just won the Champions League, but also for the Premier League as a whole, which was amid a downturn following the departure of Jose Mourinho (2007) and Cristiano Ronaldo (2009), both of whom were now at Real and engaging in epic battles with Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona.

Chelsea were in no way the best team in Europe when they rather miraculously defeated Barca and then Bayern Munich on their way to the promised land, and it would be another six years before an English team even made the final as Spain took centre stage.

In this period, Hazard was consistently one of the few top-class players in the league, the best player in Chelsea’s two title-winning campaigns (2014/15 and 2016/17) and the undisputed showman of the league, one of the very few that attracted the attention of Europe’s other elite.

Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Robin van Persie and co. slowed down and retired, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale left for Spain, Mesut Ozil never hit the heights he did at Real, Harry Kane only ‘burst onto the scene’ in 2014, the same summer Alexis Sanchez joined Arsenal, while his one-time Chelsea teammates Kevin De Bruyne (2015) and Mohamed Salah (2018) returned to the league much later.

Throughout all of this, it was Hazard who brought the spark and excitement to the league, the one who kept you on the edge of your seat.

His majestic play, which same him dovetail spectacularly with Juan Mata, Oscar, Willian, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Diego Costa amongst others, was reflected in the stats sheet as he hit double digits in both goal and assist columns as he did at Lille, but Hazard was so much more than stats, as his style of play saw him pick the ball up from deep and carry his side (both literally and figuratively).

With a Diego Maradona-like build and a backside to match any player’s (which he used to his advantage according to Yaya Toure amongst others), the Belgian dribbling, dancing and slaloming his way through defences was one of the greatest sights of the Premier League. A true artist of the sport at work with Stamford Bridge his usual canvas.

Both team and individual honours came, as well as several humorous moments such as him accidentally referring to Shrewsbury as ‘Strawberry’ before being given an impromptu pronunciation lesson by Geoff Shreeves.

His final season at the Bridge in 2018/19 perhaps best exemplified his position in the sport, which came off the back of a fantastic showing at the World Cup – in truth, it was his and his country’s Golden Generation’s only elite performance at a tournament.

That season is best remembered for his stunning goal at Anfield as Chelsea defeated Liverpool in the League Cup and was capped by him winning the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year despite the Blues finishing a mile off both Jurgen Klopp’s side and Guardiola’s City.

A player all true football fans could appreciate but maybe by this point, someone who found himself from a bygone generation as football became even more tactical and robotic.

Would there be room for the walking-in-defence-but-electric-in-attack Hazard in these sides now? It has been an era where the maverick has sadly died out.

As the curtain comes down on the career of the brilliant Belgian, it feels as if a bit of the magic of the sport has left with him. All that’s left to say is merci Eden.

NEXT: When Eden Hazard dropped the most obscene skill of all time – with an American football