A banner which hangs from the corner of The Shed End claims that Stamford Bridge is ‘The Garden Of Eden’, and on Monday night it really was.
Eden Hazard was in one of those moods. The throttle was out, the pedal down was down and it was clear right from the first whistle that he was going to take what he wanted from the game. His first goal will be talked about for a long time, with its sharp turns, its sashaying twists and its lashed finish. But his second, scored as the stoppage-time board was going up, bookended a performance against West Ham of the absolute highest quality.
But these are not simple times at Stamford Bridge. In his post-match press conference, Maurizio Sarri was allowed a quick beat to gaze upon Hazard’s excellence before the questions started about the Belgian’s future.
Transfer stories are real enough – this one certainly is – but much of the fluff printed around them depends on wilful misinterpretation. In that regard, Sarri is a less than ideal helmsman in these choppy waters. He was honest about Hazard: he hopes he stays but realises that contractual realities are working against Chelsea. Yes, he admitted, if Hazard chooses to leave then the club will have to “try something different”.
Of course, ambiguity is the weapon of choice for rumour-mongers, meaning that Sarri’s vagaries were highly malignant. It’s a binary situation: there will be no news until there is some and, between now and then, expect this to become very, very dull.
But if Hazard’s situation is intriguing for reasons other than the obvious, it’s because a Chelsea team without him is unimaginable. He doesn’t have the same kind of permanence of a John Terry, Frank Lampard or Petr Cech, even if his nearly 350 appearances have made him part of the fabric. No, Hazard’s departure is inconceivable because of its theoretical effect upon the club’s modern image.
He personally is not that identity, but what he represents is. Hazard is excellence. He’s a world-class player who gives Chelsea a puncher’s chance in every game they play. On Sunday, they head to Anfield. Their midfield still isn’t properly functioning, their defence has certainly seen better days and, if Gonzalo Higuain starts the game, their attacking pivot is less than adequate. All logic points to a damaging and demoralising defeat.
But Hazard will be there, too, and as long as he’s on the coach to Merseyside, there’s reason for the fans to follow on the trains and buses.
Roman Abramovich has always equipped Chelsea with that sort of player. More importantly, there has always been the implied promise that more would follow. The club’s recruitment policy has always had an attacking slant which, in turn, created the perception of an inexhaustible power supply: if one player doesn’t work, another one will – and he’ll be along in a couple of months.
The result has been that the end of their success cycle has never appeared on the horizon; whatever structural issues existed elsewhere in the side and whatever tensions simmered in the Stamford Bridge corridors, Chelsea have remained recognisable across the seasons. Whomever the manager was, whatever mood Abramovich was in, there were always names to fear on the team-sheet. Other clubs develop continuity in different ways, but that was Chelsea’s version of it. They weren’t represented by the same names and faces, but the challenge was always very similar.
That conveyor belt began to slow some time ago, but Hazard’s influence has been grand enough to mask the creeping poverty. He is such a rare player and his class is often so pronounced, that focusing on the mediocrity around has not only seemed beside the point, but also rather pointless. Now that his future is no longer so certain, though, the other areas of the pitch are beginning to reveal themselves for what they truly are – in previous generations, such a localised dependency would never have been allowed to develop.
During their imperial years, Chelsea bought off-the-peg players from the finest boutiques. Not all of those transfers worked, but they sustained the sense of foreboding that existed around the club and regularly sharpened their menace. Having a stable nucleus certainly helped and the Cech-Terry-Lampard-Drogba core seems even more valuable now than it was then, but the supplementing of that group was always aggressive, and very often successful. It wasn’t quite a Galacticos project – it was really more pragmatic than vain – but the club did a fine job of buttressing their position at the top of the game, nearly always boasting a team loaded with players desired by almost every other Champions League side.
And that is the identity Chelsea adopted under Abramovich: the powerhouse club, the team who were always capable of running over the rest and who, crucially, and irrespective of their general form, always had the pockets of individual ability that commanded respect.
Now, Hazard is the only player left who fits that profile. N’Golo Kante is a wonderful midfielder, obviously, and there isn’t a team in the world that he wouldn’t improve, but his worth is as part of the machinery, rather than as an outright match-winner. Hazard is different. He may well be the most talented and destructive player in the club’s history. Ironically, because of when he appeared in the cycle, he might also be the player who conforms most accurately to the notion of what modern Chelsea are. He’s sometimes brattish, often brilliant, and he turns up at the cruellest moments ready, willing and able to snatch away whatever another team wants the most. He is Chelsea; the DNA is remarkably similar.
The atmosphere surrounding his performances also suggests that there’s greater recognition for that now than ever before. It’s interesting to consider whether, in the past, the threat of any player leaving during his prime would have created anything like the same anxiety. Practically, of course not. Take Hazard out of this current side and it looks distinctly ordinary. Any fan would fear that.
On a more sensory level, though, and because of Abramovich’s nebulous visa situation, FIFA’s transfer embargo, and the suggestion that the club might be for sale, there’s a recognition that Hazard alone now carries the banner for The Way Things Were. With him, supporters can just about convince themselves that all is well. Without him, they’re left with a batch of top-six rather than top-four players, a clutch of gifted but still developing talents, and the creeping sense that theirs is a club caught between different eras.
Thirteen years ago, back in 2006, Arsenal’s slide from their Invincibles peak was well under way. Rather than competing for titles, they were ending their domestic season by squabbling with Tottenham over the final Champions League spot, almost unfathomably reaching the final through sheer defensive will.
They would ultimately qualify for the following season’s competition, but only on the last day of the season and only because Spurs wilted in typical fashion. A month before the end of the campaign, however, the final north London derby at Highbury finished in a 1-1 draw and, to emphasise how weakened Arsenal had become, they were extremely fortunate to take even a point.
There was a revealing moment in that game. Arsene Wenger had left Thierry Henry out, preferring Emmanuel Adebayor instead, and it backfired. When Henry finally left the bench to warm up in the second half with Arsenal behind, the crowd’s mood changed. Not in the usual, healthy way, with a surge of optimism and renewed enthusiasm, but with almost pleading desperation; in that moment, Henry was less an extremely useful substitute and more a dose of something that nearly 40,000 people urgently needed. He was footballing Vitamin B for a crowd who sensed rain.
As had become tradition, Henry was being linked with his annual move away and so his appearance, paired with the flow of the game on the pitch, created an odd dynamic – it was as if the fans had seen what the future looked like without him, had already decided that they hated it, and needed the immediate reassurance of seeing him play. They needed his goals, but they needed his symbolism too.
Arsenal’s gentle float away from the summit ultimately wasn’t that neat and, clearly, Chelsea’s situation has many obvious differences, but the role of Hazard now is remarkably similar to Henry’s then. The levels of individual performance and scale of ability are roughly the same. The surrounding flaws are superficially comparable. And, most similarly, Hazard has inherited that same ethereal role, in which he’s no longer just a very fine player, but also a guardian against what will likely be a darker tomorrow.
So, that Garden Of Eden banner stays with you. For no other reason than it now seems much too literal; it’s too on the nose and much too true. Stamford Bridge is absolutely his place. It’s his own personal stage where the floodlights are angled towards him, but if he’s not there and if the club are unable to march in the kind of replacements that they once did, then to what or who are those lights going to point and, more troublingly, to where are Chelsea actually headed?
Seb Stafford Bloor